The secret financial side of the solo piano music industry

I dropped a lot of negativity a few weeks ago about professional music. Today, I am going to give another perspective though not about the same genre. If you are one of those pianists that wants to earn a living in music, I encourage you to read this Rolling Stone article.

As it turns out, I know most if not all of the musicians listed in that article personally and many of them are friends. I like those guys. They are practically all members of Whisperings, a group of maybe eighty professional solo pianists (including me) that is the brainchild of David Nevue. If you get airplay on Whisperings Radio, you are a member by default. A lot of us get together every year, normally in San Diego, but next year in Atlanta.

The music of Whisperings is George Winston-like for the most part. Some would call it New Age and some would call it Neo-Classical. I prefer the latter because New Age has some negative connotations that have nothing to do with what these guys write. Basically, it is relatively uncomplicated music that you might hear at the dentist. It is the kind of music you play when you want to relax while reading a book or studying. Maybe sort of like elevator music. The two albums of mine that play on Whisperings are Solace and Quiet Place if that gives you an idea.

There are many professional musicians that sneer at this music. Frankly, I don’t care for some of it either but some of those guys are incredible musicians that can play rings around me. However, they intentionally write the music they do because there is a market for it. They could play Chopin but they choose to play music that might be classified as Chopin-Lite.

Again, a lot of musicians don’t understand that perspective. Those would be the musicians that are broke…

As the article points out, many of these guys make far more money than artists that you might hear on pop radio. A LOT more money in fact. The article mentions Michelle McLaughlin earning $250,000/year. That is probably low and I know others that make more than that or at least did at one time.

How can it be that musicians you have never heard of are making six figures in music while famous musicians are making almost nothing? How can it be that a guy that almost never does concerts with more than 30 people in attendance can earn more than some that play to thousands? It is not complicated. They have just found a niche: the niche of background music.

Basically, these guys are getting streams from people that are in situations where they want music that is not distracting. It is all about ambience. The music of ambience is a big business.

Let me peel back a few layers about the finances. The article mentions a few that have over a billion spins on Pandora (a spin is a single song streamed). Think about that number for a second. A billion spins is a ridiculously huge number. My Pandora spin count is only between 50-100 million spins but I think that is also a huge number. You don’t earn much per spin but you don’t have to if you are getting those kinds of numbers. Basically, as a musician, you can expect to earn about $0.001 per spin. That works out to $1,000 per million spins. If you have a billion spins, you have earned $1,000,000 from Pandora. Yes, you read that right.

I mentioned that I am way behind some of those guys in spins. One of my dumbest business mistakes ever was ignoring Pandora for as long as I did. The same guys in this article were the ones that turned me on to Pandora several years ago but I was already about ten years late to the party. If I had focused on Pandora as soon as they did, I don’t know where my spin count would be now but in general, Pandora does favor longevity. In other words, your spins tend to grow exponentially on Pandora rather than linearly.

Thus, if you get on Pandora today, you should know that it will be probably be harder for you to get spins than it was for me and much harder than it was for the Whispering guys like Nevue and McLaughlin. That does not mean you should not get on though. Submitting to Pandora is free and if you get approved and start getting spins, it is great residual income. I get nice deposits in my bank account from Pandora’s licensing companies every month and will for a long time regardless of what I do with music in the future. As a great example of that, I am most associated with Anthony Burger on Pandora, a pianist familiar to many of you. Anthony has been dead for two decades but he is still earning money on Pandora for whoever owns his music.

Of course, you can’t just throw any music on Pandora and get spins. In the first place, they only take a small percentage of the music that gets submitted to them. And then, even if approved, you are not guaranteed much. Pandora is going to reward musicians that generate music that people like. They determine that of course by whether people skip songs and vote with the thumbs up button. In general, good music will rise to the top. So, if you want spins, get a time machine, go back ten years and submit great music to Pandora. If you can’t get a time machine, just submit great music to Pandora and be patient.

Now, let me give you the other side of this. The Whispering group has had an incredible run with Pandora but there are no guarantees that it will continue. In fact, there have been many changes in algorithms and payment calculations and some musicians have taken big hits on income. The smart ones have done everything possible to diversify their income across a lot of streaming platforms and have looked for ways to develop income outside streaming such as website CD and sheet music sales. Those guys will be fine in the long run for the most part. Others who have failed to protect themselves from Pandora issues and gotten used to the big checks and living large may end up in trouble in the future. The fact that Pandora has never been a huge part of my music income probably is not completely a bad thing for that reason.

The warning for you is to remember that things change rapidly. Pandora does not owe any musician anything really. They can cut your spins to zero or cut their payouts dramatically. Pandora itself could become obsolete or Congress could pass new laws for the music industry as they did a few weeks ago. Enjoy Pandora but as the Bible says, cast your bread on many waters. In other words, diversify.

So here is my takeaway: if you are a musician and can record ambience music, there is a huge demand for it not just on Pandora but on the Apple platforms, Spotify, YouTube, and many other streaming platforms that pay in a similar way. Streaming ambiance music is a great income strategy for pianists who can write it. I am not going to guarantee you can make a great living with it but it is something to look at. Just be careful, understand that nothing is forever, and plan on some bumps in the road along the way.

Here is another article I just saw this morning that is related and might interest you: