AMA: “How do you make a living making music?” -Tommy

Hey Aaron

I was wondering how you make a living making music? Do you make more money from selling songs or performing them? I still devote a lot of my time to music. I am working on putting an act together. I have over a hundred songs, none professionally recorded. I have a few I am very proud of some that are entertaining but not so proud of.

I am building a home studio/ band rehearsal space. I was wondering what gear you like the best. Microphones, mixing boards and PA/ Monitors? Thanks for the email. And keep up the good work.


Tommy, thank you for these questions.

I’m really glad to hear you’re still making music, and I think it’s great that you’re planning to record an album. It’s easier to record these days than at any other time in history, and I’m of the opinion that that’s a good thing. 

I’ll answer your questions as best I can. If you have any follow up questions, just let me know, all right? 

Here goes… 

How do you make a living making music? 

This is a big question. As you’re probably aware, there’s no easy answer. People make a living making music in different ways, and they all find their way by different routes. So, it really depends on what you want to do. 

If you want to be an artist or band that someday ends up on the Tonight Show, then that’s a long, tough road with absolutely no guarantees. But if you want to be a studio engineer or producer, then it’s still going to be tough, but there’s a slightly clearer path. 

Plus, there are all kinds of jobs outside of making music but within the music industry (e.g., manager, booking agent, publisher, roadie, tour manager, etc.). 

But if you know that making the music is what you really want to do then you’re down to: musician (studio/touring), studio engineer, mixing/mastering engineer, producer, songwriter, or artist.

Sorry, I don’t mean to overwhelm you. I just want you to know what your actual choices are. Because growing up, I thought there was only one way to “do music.” Write some songs, form a band, get signed, tour, play Letterman. But then I realized there were a lot of things I could do. 

The real question is what kind of life do you want to live? 

I love being with my family and creating music, but not necessarily performing it. Knowing that has made all the other questions, like “How do I make a living making music?” much easier. For example, I knew I needed to move to Nashville, where home life and music life overlap way more than other places. Because music is Nashville’s main export, there’s infrastructure built into the culture for families just like there’s infrastructure for families built into farming towns. 

Make sense?

Do you make more money from selling songs or performing them? 

For the past several years, most of my income is from what’s called sync licensing. I’m not actually selling the song; I’m giving a company or TV show the right to use it for 1) a certain amount of time, 2) a specific territory, and 3) exclusivity in that company’s industry (I couldn’t license a song to Home Depot and then also to Lowe’s) — all those things in exchange for a fee. 

A recent example is a hotel company in Dubai. They licensed a song of mine called “Making All Things New” for their TV ad campaign. The parameters were that it could be used for 6 months only in the GCC. 

Before that I made more money from performing my songs. I mostly played small clubs, coffee shops, churches, wherever really. When starting out, I played for free/tips and sold my CDs. When I got a little more established and could draw a crowd, the venue would pay me a percentage of the cover (usually around  75 to 80%) and then I sold merch — usually just t-shirts and CDs. The bulk of my income came from CDs.

What gear do you like best for a recording/rehearsal space? 

First let me ask, what’s your budget?  

I love trying to work with a $0 budget, because it forces me to get really creative with what I already own. I’ve gotten great kick drum sounds out of a cardboard box. I released a single on iTunes using GarageBand. I’ve licensed songs to major companies from stuff I recorded on a $100 microphone. 

But if what you have isn’t enough or you’re ready for the next level, then here’s what I currently use and recommend based on what I think is bare-bones-essential for self-producing your first album.  Let me know if you have any questions. 

  1. Computer
    • Macbook Pro (with at least 8 gigs of RAM, ideally 16)
  2. DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
    • Logic X (easier transition from GarageBand than ProTools and becoming just as industry standard)
  3. Interface
    • Apogee Duet
  4. Microphone
    • 1 Dynamic (Shure SM7)
    • 1 Condenser (Audio Technica AT2020)
  5. Headphones
    • Sennheiser HD 280
  6. Midi Controller
    • Line 6 Mobile Keys 49 (or something similar)
  7. Monitors
    • Yamaha HS8 (pair) … or the HS5’s to save a few bucks. 

Ok, Tommy, let me know if I answered your questions or you want me to expand on anything. 

Thanks again! 


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