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The New Musician’s Hustle

When the pandemic first arrived, it quickly became clear that music was going to be one of the hardest-hit industries. Staring down a gig-less calendar, one artist here recounts the steps they took to stay active and profitable as an artist operating in a struggling music economy.

Guest post by Professor Elemental

I don’t think there is a single performing musician who will forget those early moments of the pandemic. When you watched the crowded calendar and potential opportunities fade to a huge blank expanse. Hearing from each gig as they cancelled one by one was like watching the stars going out in the sky. It was worrying. It was heartbreaking. It was rubbish.

For most of us, the shows are what brings in the cash. They pay our mortgage and allow us to connect with fans. They allow us to travel to new places and perform our music the way we intended. They are a lifeline in more ways than one. Without those in place, some musicians have had to seek full-time work elsewhere. Others have put their effort into streaming gigs to tide them over.

I was determined not to get a proper job again after working so hard to escape the last one, but I found the idea of streaming a gig in my bedroom while the kids were asleep more depressing than not performing at all. So what to do? It was time to learn from the forefathers of hip-hop to which I owe my career and get my hustle on.

I appreciate that every musician is as different as music itself and that the following might not be applicable to you, but hopefully there will be something you find useful in here. Either way, here’s what I tried and, in particular, what worked:

Make Good Art

Not only did I expand the range of the merchandise that I was offering, but I also teamed up with visual artists to make new images for the items that I had on sale. Working with artists is great, as it can give your merch a new lease of life and inspire your own creativity. Don’t just print out new stuff with the same logo on it, try and find ways to illustrate themes and lyrics from your songs.

I’m lucky enough to be part of a community where I bump into great artists all the time, but I know a lot of people who use Fiverr to great success. If you’re too broke for that, see if you have an artist in your fan base and offer them a creative swap – a lot of artists will happily swap images for specially-made songs. We’ve even gone so far as to publish a range of comic books, which keep selling years after production. I’d also recommend reaching out to people you don’t know on social media – you might not hear back from two out of three people, but occasionally you strike gold. One of my favourite DC Comics artists has drawn the cover for the next album and it all came from a brief conversation on Twitter.

Once you have your art, it’s all about thinking outside the box as much as possible. This year, I’ve gone for face masks (who hasn’t) and tote bags, but also bookmarks, mugs, action figures, and temporary tattoos. If you’re in the UK, I recommend Awesome Merch, who are always on point and have excellent customer service.

Clear The Decks

The other good thing about new merch is that it gives you a chance to clear out the old stuff. While ordering my merch, I did a few sales and offers to clear out the existing products (and the occasional album which was just collecting dust, never to be sold). Along with doing a sale for a limited time, it’s also worth trying things like ‘there are only five copies of this album left in the world’ or ‘every sale this week will get a FREE ALBUM in the mail’. In the past, I’ve even given away costumes and props from old shows. If you have an album that didn’t sell as well as you hoped and it’s collecting dust in the garage, or you have a pile of merch that you cart back and forth from every show, consider investing it in a giveaway. It’s great for the fans and can generate some really good revenue from the projects that never got much love.

Spread the Word

After clearing the decks, getting the word out is obviously essential. New merch doubles as something new to post on Instagram (instead of those pictures of past glories with ‘I can’t wait to get back on tour with you guys again’ written underneath). The monthly mailing from Bandzoogle is the most essential, as you have a group of people who actively want to hear from you. Alongside that, Facebook groups can be handy, along with Twitter and whichever subscription service you use. Speaking of which, whether it’s Patreon or Bandzoogle’s own fan subscription service, it’s worth giving new merch to subscribers first, and even sending some directly free-of-charge where you can. If you can look after the people kind enough to subscribe, they will look after you.

Outside of merch, I still use social media to remind fans that the best place to buy my tunes is the website. With no fees, it’s always better than Bandcamp (although Bandcamp is great and have been really supportive of musicians during this time) and much better than Spotify (who haven’t).

Keep It Bespoke

If there is a silver lining to the lack of gigs and collapse of the record industry, it’s that us small independent musicians can find our own tribe. At the moment, everyone is on their phones more and eager for distraction. Partly with that in mind, I have started a new service creating bespoke songs for individuals. This is not applicable to all – I’m lucky enough to have an established fan base and a type of music that lends itself to a brief – but if you can do it, I *highly* recommend it. It’s hard work, but always an honour that someone would like to commission a song from you. Plus, it has led to the creation of some really fun music. If that’s a bit much, it’s also worth looking at greeting services like Cameo and CelebVM, who I have recently joined. Neither one will pay the rent on their own, but they are a nice thing to add to the mix – plus they force you to be creative again, which can only be a good thing.

So that’s that. A few new possible hustles to keep things going until we can get on the road again. I hope something helps and I hope I get to meet you backstage sometime in 2021.

About Professor Elemental

Professor Elemental is an award-winning hip-hop artist and accomplished host. With a career spanning a decade, the Professor combines music and comedy, incorporating improvisation and new material for each performance. More information can be found at