Posted by & filed under Featured, Features, Music.


Independent Days with Hayato Imanishi of Cyclamen

All of us musicians dream of making a living with music, yet so few of us actually manage to do so. More often than not, I think that is because we severely lack understanding of the relationship between the music we make and the money around it.

In this chapter, I list questions you should ask yourself to decide whether it’s a good idea to commit yourself as a full time musician, and why….

1. Have you got the three important parts of the business ready?

In the first chapter, I talked about the three important parts of the business – Production, Advertising and Retail. You lack any one of these and your business won’t work, so make sure you already have a business that is functional – because every second you’ll spend being a full-time musician will cost you money. You can’t afford not earning for every second to recoup this.

1.1 Production

As a musician, your product obviously is “music”. There are two main products: Your recorded music and your live performance.

Recorded music is packaged to downloads/CD/vinyl/cassette tape and becomes a product that a customer can purchase. Another way of earning is by your music being used by adverts and films. You get paid for your synchronisation rights.

Live performance can be of your original music, or a function band to play covers. You get paid per performance.

Withyouathome live

The important part for this though, as I talked in the previous chapter, is that your product must be in demand; before you move onto anything further you MUST make sure that your products are good enough that there will be customers who want to buy it (and no, your friends and family don’t count as these “customers”). There is no point making chopsticks that speak Japanese rude words every time you put them into your mouth…Well, there might be an order or two but it’s not going to provide you a roof to sleep under. You must clarify to yourself what sort of social group of people will be interested in your products, and whether there is enough interest to make it a sustainable business. 100 purchases might let you live a week or two, but it won’t be enough to provide you a sustainable living.

Probably a good indication of a “good product” is earning of $1000 in a year without using any advertising that costs you money. If a product is making $1000 without any promotion and advertising, you could probably make at least double with advertising. And $1000 should cover the cost for the advertising so you are at least not losing money from this investment.

This is practically acting as your market research – you’ll know whether your product has a potential to be a commercially successful product. Once you’ve achieved creating a good product, you should be able to collect enough statistics to be able to predict the sales of your future product.

You cannot afford to be selling products that don’t generate enough money while you are a full time musician. Every product must be worth your time and money for advertising. It really depends on the living cost of the environment you are in, but it’s safe to say wherever you are, you’ll need at least $10,000 a year (if you are a band, multiply by the number of members) just to pay bills and food…which is 10 products a year (and that’s a lot already).

Cyclamen hoodie

In terms of live performance, if you rely your income purely on it that means you need to be earning $100 per performance (for 100 performance a year – that is one show ever 3.6 days). If you are not earning that much from one show, chance of you making living as a performer is low; not to mention that you need to get 100 shows a year somehow. You must be able to book at least 10 shows a month, with the fee of $100 per performance. If you cannot manage that for any given month, you are not ready to be a full-time musician as a performer.

It reads pretty bad so far, doesn’t it? 10 products that make more than $1000 per year, or 10 performances a month with $100 fee…Both pretty tall order.

The good news is that you can combine “Recorded music” and “Live performance“, and manage half each. That way you can product 5 products that earn $1000 a year, and 5 shows a month with the fee of $100…Now might be just about possible (still pretty hard though, mind).

So what I’d say is this: until you produce a product that earns $1000 and book 5 shows in a month with $100 fee, you becoming a full-time musician is off the table, because you have to do that 12 times more just to survive one year.

1.2 Advertising

As I stated above, you shouldn’t be spending your money on advertising unless you know you are not going to make the loss. Advertisements tend to increase the sales by percentages. What this means is that if your product doesn’t have a good probability in customer purchasing your product in the first place, advertising won’t help you.

If your product is advertised to 100 people and 1 person buys, exposing it to 1000 people will make 10 sales. However if your product only has 1 in 1000 probability of sales, then to make 10 sales you need to make your product exposed to 100,000 people.  Bad thing about cost of advertising is that you pay by quantity , so the cost of  exposing your product to 99,900 people compare to 900 would cost 110 times more…and still the same sales. You are bound to make a huge loss.

So that’s why I said look no further if you haven’t achieved making a good product in the section 1.1. If your product’s probability of purchase is so low, it’s not worth making effort in advertising…You are just going to make loss. But given that you have a good product, here’s the guide line to whether you have good enough “advertising” channel ready to be a full-time musician.

The bottom-line here is whether you have enough exposure to produce $1000 sales for a product. Say you sell a CD for $10, then you need about 100 CD sales (For the sake of simplicity I’m going to ignore the manufacturing cost). Say you have a product with the sales probability of 1% (which is actually very high), then you need to have your product exposed to 10,000 people.

Unfortunately this isn’t quite as simple as having 10,000 likes on Facebook, or 10,000 followers on Twitter, because these likes/followers aren’t 100% actively engaged to your musical activity, or they have hidden your updates so practically they are dead users to you. The percentage of your actively engaged users largely depends case by case, but it is most accurately observed by the biggest number of likes or favourites you get on your status, because it’s highly likely that if a user doesn’t click the “like” button on your status, they won’t buy your product either.

In theory, the number of purchases should be even smaller than the number of likes, but it turns out that in case of Cyclamen, number of likes received on the status roughly corresponds to the CD sales per year. But as I said before, this really depends each band – Some bands have a lot more people clicking “like”s compare to purchase.

So, what I’d say is…until you get a social networking platform that will get 100 active users interacting to you regularly, you might want to avoid committing yourself as a full-time musician.

*NOTE* Paying for sponsored stories, the “promote” feature on Facebook, media coverage etc will increase the number of people exposed to your products, but you really must remember: advertising is only worth it of this increases your sales enough to pay for it. In case of CD, you get paid $10 per purchase, and that requires 100 more actively engaged users exposed because of the advertisement. So if the cost of advertising doesn’t work out as 10 actively engaged users per dollar, it’s not worth it (you’ll quickly find out that most paid advertisings are not worth it).

1.3 Retail

This part is the easiest, and also the most limited about what you can do. Other than covering stores that most independent musicians are using, there isn’t so much you can be creative about (apart from the store designs and coming up with good deals). It is important that you use the stores other musicians are using, because your customers are more familiar with the interface and method of payment. This makes the customers more willing to pay – they know how to, and it is less stressful process for them.

The key is to make the process as easy and painless as possible. If it makes the customers feel good about paying, even better. It’s all about giving a pleasant experiment so that they’ll want to do it again.

2. Do you have enough work to justify dedicating your life to music?

Once you become a full-time musician, you’ve got 24 hours a day to do things – 8 hours of which you will sleep, and 4 hours of which you will spend having meals, showers etc. That still leaves 12 hours a day, and you must have enough work to justify freeing yourself up for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to be a full-time musician.

To do this, you have two choices – Get work, or Make work.

The Wedding Singer
2.1 Get work

Getting work is definitely harder of two, unless you are not very good at multi-tasking, or would like to focus on a very specific aspect of music. This is because getting a work commissioned requires a trust from someone else, and also respect for your work. You might get a job or two every now and then, but to get a steady stream of commissioned work normally involves in you having established your name in the industry and also a long list of clients who are happy to come back for more work. This naturally requires amazing skill, a good portfolio, and excellent communication skills to stay in touch – all of which you wouldn’t have as an upcoming musician.

The only exception might be if you are working as a function band. You still need to be skilled, but a lot of the time people aren’t as bothered about your reputation for wedding bands, for instance. The less of your originality that is involved, the more work you can get without having a great portfolio.

The advantage of this is that you know you’ll come out with a profit and you don’t need to invest anything substantial (if it requires investment your customer will pay for you). It’s risk free and easy money – good pay as well normally.

Disadvantage is that you are working for someone else. This means that your goal is to satisfy your customer, not yourself. You’ve got to do whatever it takes to make them happy. This is often a major compromise of your creativity and it doesn’t necessarily make your job rewarding. In some cases, this might be worse than working office jobs because music is something you care about, and this job might require you not to care about it.

2.1 Make work

This is the easier and more rewarding option of the two…IF you can produce enough work for yourself. And practice doesn’t count as “work” because you are not earning any money – it is an “investment” to produce a better product, like upgrading machines in a factory. Time you spend practicing is actually “spending” and not “earning,” so make sure your work is something that counts for “earning” – and if you cannot produce workload for yourself that keeps you busy at least 8 hours a day , 7 days a week then you don’t need be a full-time musician. You don’t need all these hours. You can fit some work at companies that pays you well, provides stable income that is predictable.

For Cyclamen and Withyouathome, I pretty much do everything – from composing songs, recording, mixing and mastering, designing packages, promoting & marketing, maintenance of websites for social communication and retailing – and more. This does require me to learn many softwares and different skills, and pretty irregular hours of work, but most days I work more than 8 hours a day – unless they are days I dedicate to my family.

Try dedicating yourself a weekends for music completely, without spending time practicing or recording (because they are “investing”, not “earning”). If  you feel you are not spending your every waking hour effectively even for 48 hours, then you probably don’t need to have 7 days a week of your life dedicated to your life.

Again, you can mix “Get work” and “Make work” if you don’t get enough from just one of them. In addition, you can take up part-time/freelance jobs to fill in the hours that you still struggle to fill. After all, that is what most of us do – I still take occasional designing works and well paid web work (I used to work as a web developer for 2 years in London after graduating from Computer Science degree). As I wrote earlier, commissioned work pay better. So until I can earn more money for the same hour from music, it makes sense for me to take up any freelance work that comes my way.

So, to summarise… 

1. You need to have your business in place, ready to go


2. You must be able to provide yourself with enough work to justify being self-employed for 7 days a week.

If you cannot provide enough work for yourself, then every minute you spend not working will be costing you money and it will suck your bank account dry, and more importantly, you could be earning extra cash for taking part-time jobs.

Being a full-time musician isn’t an excuse to be lazy – quite the opposite. You’ll be working MUCH longer hours than normal desk job. Not to mention the high risk and unpredictable income. Even worse, if you get ill/unable to work for whatever the reason, it costs you medical bills (super expensive without insurance) and you won’t be earning because you are not working.

It is definitely not a good job, financially. You only do it for the love of music. If you are looking for a nice income, security, money to buy a house for the family and good education for your children, you are definitely looking at the wrong job.

However I can say that I’ve never been unhappy with myself for what I do right now and I am very proud of what I have achieved. But it only goes up to the personal level. Your family is constantly worried about you because you have no insurance and stable income, you constantly worry about your spending – socially it doesn’t look very good being a “musician” that no one has every heard of either.

It is a very selfish, and socially not very productive job (you aren’t really contributing to the society much, to be honest). But if you love music so much that you really can’t live without it, sometimes it becomes not your choice, but necessity.

Hayato ImanishiAbout the author

I manage and am a part of the bands Cyclamen and Withyouathome, and I’ve been trying to make a living as a full time musician since 2008. Currently I live half my time in Tokyo and other half in Bangkok, with live bands in both countries. Both bands are self-managed with no association to any labels or management companies.