Every week, for over a year now, I sit down and I write out how much gross income I've earned that week, and I share it on my Tumblr.
Here are some of the more recent numbers: $725.58, $991.57, $654.10. A year ago these numbers were $300, $72, $897. I call my series "This Week in Freelancing," formerly "This Week in Independent Musicianry," when I was trying to make a go of it as a full-time musician. (Now, I'm a freelance writer and ghostwriter who occasionally plays shows. The numbers are better.)
They say "write the thing you want to read," and although there are many other musicians blogging about their travels and struggles (I am particularly a fan of Marian Call's blogs and marginalia), there were no musicians I could find who were simply setting down how much money they were actually bringing in every month. So, a few months after starting my life as the full-time solo member of the nerd-folk act Hello, The Future! I started tracking my income, publicly, online.
One of the subtle assumptions of independent musicianry is the idea that once you go full-time, you somehow make a full-time income as a musician. When I made the leap to full-time, I was doing so on two years of steady performance and a quantifiable history of album sales. This, in retrospect, seems grossly early, but I didn't switch to full-time without doing my research. Other musicians in my genre, who were doing about as many performances in equally prominent venues, were full-time. It seemed logical for me to make a similar move.
In touring and performing, I was categorically successful. In earning any kind of "full-time liveable income," I was not. Even though I have earned over $20,000, gross, as a musician, which represents a whopping lot of CD sales, and even though I could pull in $500 at an average convention and over $1,000 in a weekend at bigger events like GeekFest or MAGFest, the simple expenses of travel, as well as the overhead of producing multiple CDs, t-shirts, hoodies, posters, and other merchandise, wore me down financially. My business was barely breaking even; there were no profits left over for other budget line items like rent and food.
It was important, for me, to share that online. It was very important for me to share that, at least in my example, spending a month traveling to five cities to play three weekend conventions and five solo shows did not actually equate to a living wage. I lost money, often. Even when I got a venue fee, and even when I sold piles of merch, I still, technically, paid to play.
I also learned that I paid to play every time I put something on the internet. I might sell a $10 album, but Bandcamp takes a cut, or iTunes takes a cut; then PayPal takes a cut when the money hits your account, and then you owe federal, state, and city taxes on your income, not to mention sales tax on physical merch sales. If Bandcamp takes 1.5 percent and PayPal takes 3.6 percent and sales tax takes 6 percent… eventually, by the time you're done, only a very small percentage of that $10 sale comes back to you — and most of that "profit" already got eaten up by the cost of making the album.
Being "successful" and simultaneously "not making that much money" is a story that people aren't often telling. It was important to me that I present my weekly income not as whining or complaining, but as simple fact. Here's how many shows I played this week; here's how much money I made. You do the math.
The most common response I got? Thank you. Musicians, writers, and freelancers of all stripes told me how glad they were that I was sharing my financial story online. People I didn't know would come up to me at conventions or Maker Faires and say "Are you Hello, The Future! I love your blog where you post your money online. It's something that more people need to talk about." Turns out my story was, in many ways, everyone's story — at least everyone trying to make a go of it at some type of creative work.
And, to answer your last question: why did I give up the full-time musicianry in favor of what can only be the world's second-least-stable career, freelance writing? It's reasonably simple. I started picking up a few freelance articles to pay the bills during those weeks in which I only made $72. Suddenly, I was making several hundred dollars a week ghostwriting, then paying $500 to travel to Phoenix Comicon and lose money opening for the cast of Babylon 5. There's love of the craft and then there's financial foolishness. In my case, the numbers are clear.
I'm still posting my freelance income online, every week. It's the best way I can share with people what, exactly, a freelance life entails. Of all my work, it's the most well-loved creative endeavor I've ever done.