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30th Anniversary Special: The State of Music Earnings

October 21, 2015

This article is part of Electronic Musician's special 30th Anniversary issue. To read more commemorative content, visit

If you choose any point in the 30-year history of Electronic Musician, it’s a safe bet that the way musicians, engineers, producers, and performers make money from music was in a stage of flux. This evolution of music earnings has essentially been dictated by two forces: the law—legislation and a long series of court cases—and technology.

The sheer number of ways to monetize music today is incredible. These opportunities are within reach of most music creators—especially when they realize that today, they’re the music label. If they spend a weekend or two registering their music in all of the places that generate royalties and revenue like music labels do, they can participate in the same income streams.

This is also an important time for music makers to pay close attention to the future state of income. A major piece of legislation currently making its way through Congress has the potential to shake up royalty structures that have been in place for more than 60 years.

We’ll survey today’s income streams—some of which didn’t even exist a few years ago—examining how they’ve changed and how music creators can take advantage of them today. And then we’ll look at proposed legislation that could change the lives of musicians, producers, and engineers in the near future.


In 1999, music sales hit their highest peak. Then came the internet and Napster: Music fans found themselves in a world of nearly unlimited music that they could explore, share, and download from their home computers. The music industry was slow to adapt, partly because they weren’t nimble compared to the speed of change in the computer world (where companies like Apple were able to step in). Plus, they were encumbered by the contracts of previous business models, which limited their options. In the intervening time, digital distribution platforms such as Apple’s iTunes took hold and became a key way that fans bought and experienced music.

Today any musician can inexpensively and easily put their music up for sale worldwide on digital music platforms. Some services are even free, since the distributor takes their cut from the sales on the back end rather than charge an upfront fee. Major digital aggregators include CD Baby, TuneCore, Nimbit, ReverbNation, and DistroKid. (Free options include RouteNote or Loudr.)

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