Selling Out:  How do musicians earn money online? | Information is Beautiful via Flowing Data
Selling Out: How do musicians earn money online? | Information is Beautiful via Flowing Data

What works

Here’s another graphic from David McCandless atInformation is Beautiful (though I came across it when Nathan Yau wrote it up at Flowing Data) which was originally motivated by McCandless reading a piece written by independent recording artist Faza at The Cynical Musician. After the infographic hit the blogosphere, Faza ended up receiving some sort of secondhand criticism which he then countered by trying to explain what he was up to in a follow-up blog (see below for all the blogs in question).

Here’s how he described what he was originally trying to figure out:

“Most of what I write (apart from broader policy or economic issues) is aimed at the independent artist. I’m one myself, so I know the pain all too well. I know that deep down the independent artist hopes for the day when they are making enough money to be able to concentrate solely on their art.

The independent artist does not have a huge fanbase – the evolution of the Internet thus far has not changed this. The independent artist has few resources and usually cannot afford a huge marketing push. The independent artist’s financial situation largely depends on getting the most from her limited fanbase with the least expenditure possible. The biggest bang for the buck, if you will.”

This was in response to folks who pointed out that the future of the music is the past (ie live performance) or that the the profitability of music is not just in the ticket sales but the merchandise! Rightio. But Faza pointed out that for truly independent folks who do not have the resources to get out there and market themselves, going on tour and selling a bunch of tickets (and merch) probably isn’t going to happen. And, selling band t-shirts online is tougher than selling them at concerts, so the interwebs aren’t exactly making a huge difference there either.

10.000 ft view
10.000 ft view

One more thing before we get to the graphic itself. When I was fiddling with it in photoshop I realized that I had a greater appreciation of it when I started with the 10,000 foot view and then slowly zoomed in.

The colors are good. For some reason, black + some bright color is a good idea when it comes to contemporary cultural products like music and fashion. Smacks of a certain dynamism and ‘cool’ factor, which is just the spot this graphic is aiming to hit. Of course, the black + bright color = cultural cool formula will change and it doesn’t mean there are not many other components that could add up to cultural cool. Just saying, I think the basic strategy with the full bleed black background and a single bright color (100% M) is working here. The growing circles also do a good job of making the point that streaming music will not pay the bills and neither will selling downloads on napster or other similar sorts of sites.

The most surprising fact for me was that self-pressing a CD and selling it directly to consumers was more rapidly profitable than any of these other options. New respect for all the folks in New York and LA who have stopped me and tried to get me to buy their music while I’m walking down the street/beach.

What needs work

My biggest issue with this graphic is the the little pie charts are really where it’s at – they are not part of the big picture story that the more ‘advanced’ online music sales techniques are the less profitable per unit of effort they are for the artists. The little pie charts try to show us how the money is allotted. But the revenue pie is never a full pie and it’s difficult to tell where the money that doesn’t go to the artists or labels is going. Some clearly goes into things like the cost of the physical CD (where there is a physical CD) and some goes to the other players involved, right? But how much? And who are these other players? And why choose a pie graph technique if the pie is never completed and the incomplete part is not fully specified? In the end, what those pie charts do is compare revenue streams to two recipients – labels and artists – while offering a general sense of the amount of money going elsewhere (though we don’t know where that elsewhere is). Maybe a flowchart of dollars moving from consumers into different pots would have done a better job of demonstrating that portion of the story.

I would also point out, from a sociological perspective now, that minimum wage is both a logical reference point and a difficult reference point. Minimum wage puts a single person just over the poverty line but the poverty line is incredibly low. Poverty lines are tied to the cost of food rather than to some composite cost of daily living that includes not only food but rent, transportation/energy, health care, and all of those things that people have to spend money on which have increased more rapidly than the cost of food. It’s my long-winded way of saying that even if artists could make minimum wage they would not actually be able to live comfortably, especially not in cities like LA and NYC where there are large, vibrant music scenes. They would have an easier time in Nashville.


Faza. (10 January 2010) “The paradise that should have been” at The Cynical Musician.

Faza. (15 April 2010) The paradise that should have been – revisited at The Cynical Musician.

McCandless, David. (13 April 2010) How much do music artists learn online at Information is Beautiful.

Yau, Nathan. (4 June 2010) “How little musicians earn online” at Flowing Data.