Making Music for Money – can it be done?

Bojingles studio image

Making music with a view to commercial exploitation, and then setting out your stall to sell it, is one of the hardest business challenges you could embark upon. All the more so if, like most musicians and writers, you are not innately business-minded. You do it for the love, of course you do.

But the stark truth is that you cannot afford to spend all, or a large part, of your time creating music that you wish to be heard – if it then gathers dust and nobody plays it. So what do you do? You may be able to play live and take it to the people. To quote the great Michael Flanders of his work with Donald Swann – “We wrote these songs for other people to sing; which they did – but not nearly enough…” So they went out on the road and the rest is history. Sadly most of us do not have the ability, looks, time, money, agent etc. to do this. Which leaves us examining our options.

Entering the Jingle Jungle

At Bojingles, as the name suggests, Rob and I set our caps firmly in the direction of making money from music. Quixotic, maybe – our aim was to rekindle the love that people had once had for sung advertising jingles (For mash, get Smash? Boom boom boom boom, Esso Blue? You do the Shake ’n Vac…) But although we have had successes with our radio jingles, not enough stations or advertisers will pay even our reasonable rates for a job well done.

So the company diversified, successfully, into video production, scriptwriting, web design and other avenues: but music was still an itch we could not scratch. Rob (using his classical training, pop group background and massive production experience) began to get work from music libraries in the USA and Japan, and that has become a regular revenue stream. (WARNING 1: money will be a long time coming, but eventually quarterly royalty payments should arrive)

Getting onto the Library Shelf

If you are keen to do likewise, you need to have the playing, writing and production skills to create styles of instrumental music to order. Libraries have music-using clients (TV and radio stations, film producers, video game makers, advertisers) who need ‘stabs’ of music to set a mood, evoke a particular era, ape a well-known style, or just to fill a silent space. The library has to build a comprehensive rack of virtual shelves, full of every imaginable type of music. If you are lucky enough and persistent enough, you may get to a point where they commission music from you regularly: or at the least, you may be invited to make some music speculatively for a project, which they may or may not then use (WARNING 2: you will be in a competition with others).

The Sad Song Business

What if you are a writer of songs? Then, to make money from them gets even harder. It hasn’t stopped us trying – but although we have been relatively successful in getting contracts for our pieces, receiving any actual money remains elusive, so we have to treat this as a part-time activity. If you want to have a go anyway, here’s how your songs might be used.

  1. Song Placements: where an artist is looking for new material (many who claim to be writers are only co-writers at best) and you are invited to pitch songs in their style. Usually you will have to share the royalties with the singer and others
  2. TV & Movie usage: the chances are better than for supplying artists, because there is a real and continuing need for extracts from songs and tunes at specific points
  3. Publishing deals: usually where a music supervisor (the person or company that acts as music supplier to agencies and media companies) wants material that they can co-publish with you and then exploit

How do you get to the decision makers? With difficulty. There are directories of music supervisors that you can buy, and you can try email and phone campaigns, but it is likely to be a soul-destroying process. Most will not accept unsolicited submissions because they get deluged. From our British perspective, there are some local targets but mostly the music users are in the USA & Canada. The way they work is, either directly or via song pluggers and publishers (often ex-label A&R people), to put out briefs through various internet sites where hopeful writers can subscribe and pitch their work.

Paying The Man

Don’t expect to pitch without cost – it is harsh for struggling writers, but to act as a quality filter and to pay the rent, music gateway sites charge you one way or another. In my experience, the best of them is Music XRay: no upfront cost but you pay per pitch. They now have mini-videos made by most of their regular music pros, so you can assess what they are like and see that they are real. Over a 2-year period, we have had music accepted and contracts signed with several pros: and we are now in direct contact with some of these, who will check out new songs without having to go through the bidding process because they know our work. (However there is usually still at least one more level of supervisor to go through before your work actually gets selected and used). Second best site in my opinion is Broadjam: you can pay as you go, but it’s better to take annual membership and be able to make a weekly pitch (plus free-pitch weekends with a job every hour, a few times a year). It’s more of a free-for-all because once you’ve joined, you tend to bid regardless of whether you can fit the brief: but I have got one good client from the system. Be careful about other music sites that require payment, and check out user feedback before joining. (WARNING 3: some clients will offer non-exclusive contracts, using your music by changing the title so their use can be identified and paid for: others insist on exclusive use, where your work keeps its name but you will have no other possible outlet – so be sure this operation has a good track record of success)

Both Music XRay and Broadjam offer feedback and comparative ratings from music pros, and you should use and heed this service. If you are getting consistently low figures, you are doing something wrong and you need to work on the problem. Sadly, you will find that the recording of you singing to your solo guitar or piano accompaniment will not cut it. The music gatekeepers mostly expect a finished, polished product, especially if it is for use ‘as is’ in commercial applications. Even when it is for pitching to some new X-Factor winner, the artist and producer will want to hear it more or less as it might sound on record. We therefore go to great lengths with production and hire good demo singers, to create a marketable product. Because that it what it is – the marketing of a product. And if that is too nakedly commercial for you, and you don’t want to be beholden to The Man, then you’re in the wrong business. Sorry…