I get a ton of people asking me for advice - so I’m posting this for other musicians (or anyone else) on understanding the finances of an online idea, or at least one angle of it. In 2006 no one could give me advice, so I learned as I went. I did a lot of things wrong, but that’s part of the process, so let’s jump into the pictures above.
Here are 2 screencaps showing all my sales from every store (Amazon, iTunes, etc.) from July 2010 - March 2012 as reported by my distributor, Tunecore. I have 6 numbers next to some of them, which I explain below.
In May 2009 I started “For Orchestra” after being laid off at a music award company. I had tried this idea back in 2006, but it failed. Having learned a lot from it all, I was determined to give it another shot while on unemployment.
On music arrangement #5 going into my 2nd month in June 2009, Perez Hilton blogged about my Lady Gaga ‘Poker Face’ For Orchestra. But having just starting this idea (and having no idea what to do or how he heard about it) I wasn’t set up correctly and made virtually nothing in sales or subscribers. The following year goes by as I make a few dollars here and there and try different stores, setups, ideas, but nothing works. In June 2010, I made $1 on my first month after getting onto iTunes. This was a huge moment in my career - the first true $1, and the belief that this could be done. The nominal level (the average income per month) slowly raises to about $150, which is huge for me. My unemployment checks end, but I decide to keep at this idea while still looking for work.
So let’s go over the points I marked in the pictures above:
1 - After 6 months of no growth I almost gave up on everything. Although my income rises to my highest ever at $192.99, I’m not convinced I’m getting enough growth to sustain, or that the next month would be profitable.
2 - Then on music arrangement #50, my Rebecca Black ‘Friday’ arrangement goes viral after Bob Lefsetz mentions me. Out of nowhere, my blog suddenly hits, and I go from making $150 a month to over $2,000 in one month. This causes sales of my entire back catalogue to get bought (Slayer, MGMT, Weezer, etc.) as well as a huge boost in subscribers and supporters. Of course I freak out, and after the traffic goes away I realize the nominal level is now $400 a month.
At this point, I knew $1,000/month was my goal. If I could make that, then I could sustain this idea and grow it.
3 - The following month the nominal level is incredibly high at $700 (probably from the overlap of the previous month) and then it settles back down to $400-$500 again for the following few months. It’s a very dark time for me here because it’s been a few years and I still couldn’t understand what to do better as bills continue to pile up.
After searching for months, I finally find a job as an afterschool Music teacher in Brooklyn, NY to pay the bills and teach music to children. The school was great, the kids rocked, and they loved my music lessons. While there, I continue to attend every single music meetup there was in NY and beyond. I fly out around the country to every orchestra and music expo, write guest articles for every magazine, left comments on every blog, and answered every. single. solitary. fan. letter. possible.
Classical radio stations tell me I’m rock.
Rock stations tell me I’m classical.
Orchestras and friends tell me I’m crazy.
I couldn’t get press or traction.
I couldn’t tour.
I couldn’t afford to make merchandise, physical CD’s, or print sheet music. All I can afford was single downloads on iTunes, so I kept on doing that.
I refused to arrange music for companies because that would take my attention away from this idea.
I skip birthday parties, weddings, etc. - basically everything that I can’t afford or time-manage.
I eat horribly, sleep little, and continue onward.
These are important because if you have an idea that you really believe in, then nothing should be unexpected. Almost every online musician, painter, comic, or start-up I talk to has gone through that.
Anyway, so I consider everything over the years: Which website CMS? Voting system similar to the Shorty Awards? Sheet Music? Licensing? How should I design a website like this? What pieces to cover? Is my arranging and production bad? Can the logo be sexier? Why aren’t things working out faster? Will this work out at all?
Then, I decide to throw in the towel after Spotify launches in 2011. I slowly begin to convince myself that since single song downloads were my only income, Spotify will crush me. I then release 1 song per month and finally decide to give up.
4 - This is where things get Interesting, in September 2011 (music arrangement #80) The Hype Machine picks up my Daft Punk arrangements, Pokepress interviews me (for my Pokemon piece), CBS (for my Amy Winehouse tribute), and many more.
5 - The nominal level falls back down, but things are different than the previous $400 level from months ago. I can FEEL something different. Something is stirring, and I’m getting a community. Fans are becoming friends with each other, people are contacting me, and my arranging abilities make a huge improvement (from reading tons of books). Then, my Kickstarter fails to get funded, so I’m unsure how to continue. Friends tell me to keep going, and my parents demand I don’t give up on my dream.
6 - On music arrangement #110, the nominal level finally raises well above $700, and I move from Wordpress to Tumblr. I make $100 on Bandcamp (which is a good sign since it’s my highest income there ever), and I begin to see something magical starting to happen. I put in my 2 weeks notice at my afterschool music job, end my lease in NYC (I had attended every event I needed to, and couldn’t afford NYC anymore anyway.) I move in with my parents so I can tackle this dream without any distractions.
And now, the past 4 weeks have by far been my best ever, although I have no hard proof yet. But I can FEEL it. I think this is going to work out.
A few notes: I was using E-Junkie before I switched to Bandcamp/Tunecore. So all that data isn’t here, although it was minimal sales and I was doing everything wrong, as you can see from my first month in sales above.
This chart is simply my gross, not net income. Other expenses musicians will have to consider: I pay 9.1% of all sales to the original artist (because I arrange cover songs), 30% to iTunes/Amazon/etc., website fees, copyright, taxes, mail, rent, medical bills, replacing things that break, travel, phone, internet, food, and more.
I may make $800 for 2 consecutive months for the first time, since starting this idea in 2006 (and “For Orchestra” in 2009). And that’s important to mention - because trends are more important than spikes. I never cared about traffic jumps. A lot of musicians, Etsy artists, eBay sellers, directors, etc. have to be patient, and I hope they see this and it helps them understand and motivate them.
I’ve learned that there’s no real way to understand how the internet works. All you can do is just keep at it. I suppose one thing that would help, is to be part of a group. It also helps to have a theme and schedule time of deployment. It also helps to keep doing something for 6 years until you get traction.
The most important thing, though, is that I always cared more about community than numbers - even when I was barely swimming above water. When I was in Denver, I hung out with @rtondreau, a fan since day 1. When I was in Minnesota last year I met up with a bunch of fans and we all had a blast. It just felt good for us to be part of something - like a secret club.
It’s been a crazy 6 years. Thanks all for your support, and I hope this has helped someone wanting some insight or motivation on an idea of theirs.
Anyway, Tumblr won’t allow me to answer comments on my own post, but we can use the Disqus comments at the bottom for that. Or go ahead and message me any questions you want. I will do my best to answer every. single. solitary. one.