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Music Industry Report 2023: Survey Shows Just 11% of Independent Artists Are Able to Make a Living Solely Through Music

Music Industry Report 2023: Survey Shows Just 11% of Independent Artists Are Able to Make a Living Solely Through Music

The global music industry looks very different today than it did 50 years ago, when record stores were filled with people looking to add rarities and new releases to their vinyl collections. With the ever-increasing popularity of digital platforms and the growing number of Spotify and Apple Music subscriptions, we basically have the world’s music catalog at our fingertips. 

Things are different for artists, as well, not just for fans. Landing that dream record deal with a major label is no longer the only way to build a fanbase and become a global sensation. Nowadays, going viral on YouTube or TikTok or having millions of listeners on Spotify can propel newcomers to unforeseen heights. Research from MIDiA shows that independent artists and artists direct (artists who release music without being signed to any label), combined, made up the largest single segment of the global recorded market in 2022. 

But the modern music industry also presents some major challenges for independent artists. Competition in the digital music landscape is fierce, and new music is released on streaming platforms every day. Expectations are also higher than ever, as fans look for quality and authenticity even in a 30-second TikTok video, while attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. This makes it incredibly difficult for newcomer artists to stand out from the crowd and get their music in front of audiences, especially without the backing of a label. 

In this context, we wanted to hear from the artists themselves, so we ran a comprehensive survey asking artists in North America about their career goals, their challenges, and other crucial details. Their answers help us get a feel for the state of the music industry in 2023, and pinpoint the biggest challenges that independent artists are facing today. Keep reading to see our findings.

55% of respondents are unable to sustain themselves financially through music

We asked respondents to our survey about their financial situation and whether they’re able to sustain themselves financially through music in 2023. While more than 59% of respondents have released music professionally and 52% have performed a live paid gig, 46% also said that they don’t earn any money as musicians. 

59% of aspiring independent musicians released songs professionally
54% of independent musicians actually earn money as musicians
52% of independent artist respondents have performed a live paid gig at some point

What’s more, only 18% of respondents said that they’re able to sustain themselves financially through music-related activities, while 27% preferred not to answer. This goes to show that, even with all the opportunities and digital avenues for music promotion and distribution, it’s still challenging for independent artists to break into the music business and make a living through music alone. Lack of mentorship, lack of access to music funding opportunities, and intense competition - these are just some of the issues that independent musicians have to deal with today. 

76% of independent musicians are not able to sustain themselves financially through their music-related activities

41% of respondents made less than $15k from music in the past year 

Even those artists who were brave enough to follow their passions and get their music career off the ground often still struggle financially. Around 41% of respondents said that they made less than $15,000 from music in the past year, while only 8% made more than $50,000 and 3% made over $100,000. 

Gross income earned by independent musicians from music in the past year

When it comes to their earnings from activities unrelated to music, 23% of respondents said they made between $25,000 and $50,000 in the past year. Close to 23% made over $50,000, while 5% made over $100,000. At the same time, 17% of respondents said they made less than $5,000 from other activities unrelated to music, and 6% had no earnings at all outside their music careers. 

Gross income earned by independent musicians from activities unrelated to music in the past year

Only 11% of respondents said that they earn a living solely through music

43% of our respondents said that they have a full-time job and pursue music in their spare time, showing that making a living solely through music can be a challenge. 18% said that they had part-time jobs outside their music careers, 17% work as freelancers, while only 11% of respondents said they earn a living solely through music. 

How independent artists earn a living

We also asked respondents about their biggest sources of income at the moment, and 25% said they earned most of their income from streaming royalties. 15% of respondents said they earn money from touring and live performances, while 11% make good money from session work. 

Only 9% of respondents picked music publishing deals as their biggest source of income, and only 7% selected physical and digital music sales. Merchandise sales and brand partnerships/sponsorships are also low on the list of income sources, as are synchronization deals and crowdfunding campaigns. 

Biggest revenue streams in music for independent artists

Being an independent musician doesn’t always guarantee multi-million dollar earnings and luxurious mansions in the hills of L.A., as they show in the movies. Roughly 32% of respondents said they’ve had to take out a loan, excluding a student loan, in their careers. 

68% of independent artists have taken out a loan, excluding student loans

41% of respondents feel that lack of exposure is their biggest career roadblock 

We wanted to understand what are the biggest challenges for independent musicians today. Access to professional recording equipment or to a recording studio is not one of them, as 70% of respondents have access to these things. That’s no surprise, given that nowadays you can set up a home recording studio on a budget, and use tools like guitar or piano VSTs to achieve a professional-level sound, thus eliminating the need to rent out a professional recording or mixing studio. 

However, 41% of respondents said that lack of exposure is one of the biggest roadblocks to a successful career in the music business. Without a deal signed with a record label, which usually covers marketing, advertising, merchandising, and promotion of new music releases, it can be difficult for newcomer artists to stand out from the crowd and get their music heard, especially on a tight budget. 

Biggest challenges faced by independent aspiring musicians

Financial constraints (39%) and difficulties building a fanbase (36%) are next on the list of challenges faced by artists nowadays. Getting record labels to hear their music (33%) is close to impossible given the competition, and label executives already have their inboxes filled with demos from emerging artists. Finding opportunities to perform live (32%) and balancing a music career with other responsibilities (26%) can also be tricky. 

26% of respondents don’t have any songs on Spotify

According to research by Goldman Sachs, consumption of music streams has increased 2.5 times since 2017, and it’s still on the rise. Streaming subscriptions are also surging, going from 3 million Spotify subscribers in 2011 to 87 million in 2018. In this context, having a strong digital presence and releasing music on streaming platforms can help emerging musicians build a fanbase and get their music heard by millions of potential fans. 

However, although lack of exposure is one of the biggest challenges faced by musicians nowadays, according to our survey responses, 26% of respondents also said that they don’t currently have any songs on Spotify. 37% of respondents have less than 500 monthly listeners on the streaming platform, with very few respondents boasting more than 50,000 listeners. 

Moreover, 26% of respondents said that they have less than 1,000 streams of their most popular songs, while 20% of respondents have not released any songs at all. Only 4% of respondents have more than 1 million streams on their most popular songs.

37% of independent artists reported they have less than 500 listeners on Spotify
Less than 1000 streams on the most popular track the artist has for 26% of independent musicians

YouTube is the most popular social media channel for independent artists

Most of the people who responded to our survey are aware of how crucial it is to be present and active on social media these days. Making the best of what digital platforms have to offer can make a big difference, especially for independent artists who handle recording, distributing, promotion, and marketing all on their own, without the backing of a label. Case in point: only 3% of respondents said they’re not active on social media. 

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for emerging artists, YouTube steals the show - 72% of respondents said they’re active on the platform. 65% of respondents actively use Instagram to promote their music, 54% are active on TikTok, and 53% use Facebook. Twitter is also a popular platform (32%), followed by Snapchat (23%), LinkedIn (11%), and Soundcloud (1%). 

Youtube is the most popular social media channel for independent artists

While some emerging artists and musicians see potential in social media channels, others might feel differently. Close to 23% of respondents said they’re not on TikTok, and 11% said they don’t have an Instagram account. When it comes to the number of followers on TikTok, 21% of respondents have between 100 and 500 followers, while 20% have less than 100 followers on the popular platform. Just 4% of respondents said that they have more than 5,000 followers, and only 2% have over 100,000. 

With so many new videos uploaded every minute, going viral on TikTok as a musician is a real challenge, and it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. Gaining recognition and followers on the platform takes a lot of time, effort, creativity, and most importantly, persistence. 

When it comes to Instagram, 25% of respondents said that they have between 1,000 and 5,000 followers, while 23% have between 100 and 500. 11% of respondents have between 10,000 and 50,000 followers on the platform, which shows that building a fanbase is easier on Instagram than on TikTok, which focuses on fast content. 

22.6% of aspiring independent musicians are not chasing a viral hit on the platform
Independent Artists: 
Total Instagram Followers

Another good way to build exposure and awareness on social media is to collaborate with influencers or content creators to reach a wider audience. 36% of respondents said that they’ve collaborated with influences before; however, 64% of respondents have not. 

36% of independent artists collaborated with social media influencers or content creators to promote music

86% of respondents never had a record deal - and it’s not their primary career goal, either

Landing that dream record deal with a major label like Universal, Sony, or Columbia used to be the ultimate goal for any aspiring musician. That’s mostly because it was the only way to get exposure as a musician - there was no TikTok, Spotify, or YouTube back then. Today, aspiring musicians have access to millions of listeners from all around the world with one click, and they can handle the recording, distributing, and promoting process from the comfort of their home, without help from a label. 

Close to 87% of the respondents to our survey said that they’ve never had a record deal, while 14% said they did. However, landing a record deal is no longer the ultimate goal for all musicians nowadays. 

60% of respondents said their primary career goal was to record and release an album, followed by 59% who said their main goal is to perform live across various states. Getting signed to a record label was only third on the list of career goals, chosen by 48% of respondents. 

86% OF independent MUSICIANS HAVE NEVER HAD A RECORD DEAL
Primary goal of independent musicians

Most of the people who answered our survey are interested in songwriting (70%), singing (68%), and performing live (64%). However, many respondents are interested in producing (47%), management (36%) and audio engineering (34%). 

When it comes to their desired career path, 59% of respondents said they’d like to be an independent artist, while 36% would like to eventually get signed by a record label. 17% would enjoy producing for other artists, and 16% want to work as songwriters. Finally, 13% of respondents said that they’d like to have a career as session musicians. 

59% of of independent artists would prefer to stay independent

Respondent details / demographics 

Gender: 

69% male 
30% female

Education: 

High school graduates (42%) 
University graduates (33%)
Vocational/technical college (17%)
Post-graduate (7%)
Middle school graduates (1%) 

Marital status:

No answer (53%)
Single (17%)
Married (15%)
Living with partner (9%)
Divorced (4%)
Separated (2%)

Employment status:

No answer (53%)
Employed for wages (21%)
Self-employed (8%)
Unemployed and looking (7%)
Retired (3%)
Student (3%)
Homemaker (2%)
Other (2%)
Unemployed and not looking (1%)
Unable to work (1%)

Country:

US (74%)
Canada (15%)
No answer (11%)

Musical background

  • Less than 1 year experience (11%)
  • 1-5 years of experience (31%)
  • 5-10 years of experience (32%)
  • More than 10 years experience (26%)

Which of the following genres best describe your music?

  • Pop (44%)
  • R&B/Soul (50%)
  • Hip-Hop (40%)
  • Hip-Hop/Rap (16%)
  • Dance (14%)
  • Country (16%)
  • Jazz (13%)
  • Latin (10%)
  • Alternative (25%)
  • Rock (27%)
  • Blues (16%)
  • Electronic (17%)
  • Others (8%)
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gregory Walfish
Co-founder of Xposure Music, Gregory Walfish stands at the intersection of music, tech, and culture. With a software engineering background, he's passionate about artist development and technology.

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