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Musicians in COVID: How independent artists are fighting to make a living

Strange times we’re all living in, aren’t they?

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone’s daily routines and hastened an economic recession. It’s hard to understate how this situation has disrupted all of our lives.

Rescheduled plans have become canceled plans and now, six months later, people across the country are still facing long-term consequences.

With no end in sight, and entire sectors of society still shut down, there’s no doubt that post-pandemic life will look quite a bit different, assuming this disease doesn’t become endemic. One sector severely impacted has been music.

Impact of a Pandemic

Shutdowns of cultural events in cities throughout the U.S. (including NYC) left musicians without their gigs, with nowhere to tour, and thus bereft of their main source of income.

Most artists get the bulk of income from live shows. Now, it’s true that live music is far from the only way to listen to your favorite musicians. I know I haven’t been to a live concert in years, and prefer it that way (yes, I’m a weirdo).

But live performances are as lucrative as it gets for a musician. Think about it this way: in the absence of live performances, how do musicians get their income? Merchandise sales are one way, though concert-goers have more exposure to merch and are more likely to buy.

Online concerts have also taken off – for instance, the famous “One World: Together at Home” fundraiser concert back in April. These online concerts don’t bring in nearly as much revenue but they’re also cheaper to set up.

Obviously, running a concert from your bedroom is easier than a packed concert hall. And if there’s one thing the Gaga-organized gig proved, it’s that these online concerts can be very successful. Sometimes.

And then there’s streaming. After all, streaming music online accounts for most of the industry these days. On the surface, that seems like good news.

After all, musicians can now get their music out to a wider audience without having to tour constantly! And for some artists, that’s just fine – that’s the model, in fact.

Live performances are as lucrative as it gets for a musician… in the absence of live performances, how do musicians get their income?

Some musicians work mainly online

Take Janet Devlin, for instance. She’s part of a relatively small class of musicians who have made their living primarily online. She got her start uploading music to her YouTube channel and even today her following is mainly online.

I’ve had to cancel a bunch of live events that I’d not even announced yet. As someone who rarely does gigs off the internet, I was really looking forward to them.

Janet Devlin, in an interview with PSN Europe

However, this model definitely doesn’t work for everybody. There are not many artists who become successful this way, and as anybody who’s tried to make money on YouTube or through podcasting can tell you, it’s thin pickings unless you are very, very popular.

The trouble with streaming

In the bulk of cases, the gradual shift to online streaming does more good for corporate giants than musicians. Artists get fractions of a penny per Spotify stream, for a start.

Streaming companies pay the artists next to nothing. in royalties

And streaming platforms run on recommendation algorithms. These services will tend to recommend already-popular artists, while up-and-comers stay niche unless they’re lucky enough to “trick the algorithm.”

And that’s most of the music industry now. Spotify is hugely popular. YouTube is actually the most popular streaming site, and it pays artists even less than Spotify.

Bringing concerts back online

Online concerts can bring the artists more direct money, if they’re paid, give the artists more control compared to streaming music through a service, and reinforce the connection between the musician and the listener (which can also drive up those sweet, sweet merchandise sales).

That said, online concerts bring their own logistical problems.

On May 29th the Dropkick Murphys live-streamed a concert in an empty Fenway Park. The live-streamed video includes frequent cuts between cameras. Physically setting up that concert would require the same expertise as if people were there in person.

Smaller, less-popular musicians aren’t going to have access to that kind of help, and the necessary marketing to get the word out about online concerts, during a pandemic. They’re going to be overshadowed.
They were able to pull an event like this off because they could advertise it widely.

Online platforms like StageIt do provide an alternative for smaller artists running living-room style concerts. While the platform was a novelty early on, and was at risk of being shut down before the pandemic started, the times have changed.

Artists on StageIt can charge for tickets, unlike video-streaming services (YouTube, Twitch) with their virtual tip jars.

Enter Bandcamp

One company in the online music space that can outdo Spotify, maybe not in popularity but in goodwill, is Bandcamp. The site seems pretty simple on the surface – just a place for artists to sell their music directly to listeners.

Listeners can review albums, leaving notes to the artists, and selecting their favorite songs. Merchandise and physical releases can be advertised, managed by the artists. Also, Bandcamp only takes a 15% cut of sales, smaller than online storefronts like Amazon.

However, the implications are huge. It’s an entirely different model from the streaming companies, and that alone has helped make Bandcamp popular.

The connection between musician and fan is virtually direct through Bandcamp.

Randall Roberts (Los Angeles Times)

Mark Mulligan of Midia Research told the Los Angeles Times that much of Bandcamp’s popularity comes simply because it’s a viable alternative to the streaming industry.

Listeners buy albums instead of subscribing to a service. And instead of recommendation algorithms, listeners browse based on the criteria they choose. There’s no “going viral,” but word of mouth matters a lot.

The site’s entire business model is based around helping artists, and since the pandemic started it has regularly waived its revenue share on certain Fridays as a promotional event.

Artists like Shamir Bailey have reported that these gestures result in real income – not just a trickle of pennies from streams.

Plus, Bandcamp Daily, the site’s own music journalism outlet, does a great job of highlighting lesser-known musicians and telling their stories.

Don’t forget though…

Musicians aren’t the only people who were affected by the shuttering of cultural events, even within the music industry.

Consider all that goes into making a live music production possible – all the people other than the musicians themselves whose work is necessary to make the music happen.

Record stores, lighting and sound professionals, photographers, janitors – everyone could use a little help these days.

One thing we can learn from music’s continued cultural reach in an age of social distancing: it is our ability to connect that gives humanity life.

When cynicism too often rules the day, we all have an opportunity and a duty to right the wrongs we see in our communities and carry one another.