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New Music Math: How TuneCore artists count their earnings

October 25, 2010 |  8:00 pm

TuneCore Logo

You can't make a whole lot of money being an independent musician. Or can you?

Not every unsigned band fits the stereotype of the starving artist who crashes on friends' couches and survives on ramen. 

Take those who release their music using TuneCore, a company that distributes thousands of digital songs on iTunes, Amazon.com and other online music stores each week. Some of them rake in serious cash. How serious? In July, the latest full month reported, the top 10 TuneCore artists collected a combined $519,825 from music sales, according to Jeff Price, TuneCore's chief executive. At least 8 of those artists did not have major record label contracts. You can read more about TuneCore here.

One artist, Los Angeles-based song-writer and comedian Liam Sullivan, sold 12,885 albums and 668,571 song tracks in total through TuneCore. With digital stores like iTunes taking a 30% cut of each sale, let's say Sullivan nets $7 for each $10 album, and roughly 70 cents for each 99-cent track. That would work out to about $558,195 for Sullivan, not including the royalties he would receive from digital music streaming services, such as Rhapsody or Pandora. (That income also does not include any sponsorships, endorsements, live performances or merchandise sales, which have also become critical components of the business.)

Christian hip hop artist Lecrae is another top TuneCore earner, with an estimated lifetime sales of $592,272 from selling 53,052 albums 315,583 tracks.

How does that compare to selling physical discs through traditional record labels? In the old days, a newly minted band would release a physical album that would retail for $16.98 on average, Price said. Of that, the bands themselves would net $1.40 to $1.70 per disc sold.

Dave Days If the artist releases the album on iTunes, they net 70% of the sale once Apple Inc. takes its 30% cut. For a $10 album, that yields $7. (Musicians pay TuneCore about $9.99 to distrubute each single or $49.99 an album of two or more songs.)

"If you go directly to iTunes and sell two songs, you'll net $1.40," Price said. "You will have made the equivalent of selling a full album at Tower Records."

Those digital pennies can add up. Just ask Dave Days (pictured on the right), who collects "six figures" from TuneCore each year.

"It definitely surprises people," Days said when he tells them how much money he can make as an independent musician.

In June, when he released a new pop song, the 19-year-old musician sold 28,845 song tracks. At 70 cents apiece, that's, um, a lot of ramen.

-- Alex Pham

 Photo: Pop musician Dave Days at the Vidcon 2010 conference in Los Angeles. Credit: Dave Days.