The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Passive Income

OK, so I should be getting back onto a semi-regular updating schedule here. The past two months have been filled with travel, yearly audit prep at the day job, apartment hunting, and moving, all of which are horribly un-conducive to writing or composing. But such is the way of life – we take these things in stride and get back onto our schedules when the dust starts to settle. In the meantime, I’ve been sketching out a handful of posts on a wide variety of topics, so I should be able to power through a few essays in the next few weeks so that the Guide can get back into full swing.

One of the topics on my mind lately has been streams of income – particularly passive income. So let’s talk about money this week, shall we?

Before we talk about passive income, though, let me define active income: Active income is any source of revenue earned through personal effort – wages, salaries, tips, etc. Commissioning fees are active income, as are any fees or pay we receive from performing, speaking, teaching, copying/engraving, etc. The bulk of our income as composers will be active, and these are the sorts of things that we’ll always be seeking out.

Passive income, on the other hand, is any regular or semi-regular income that requires little to no effort to maintain. This includes royalties and licensing fees. And for our purposes, I’m going to lump in score and recording sales because our profits from these are traditionally regarded as royalties.

Now, while passive income will likely be much less than active income, it shouldn’t be ignored for a number of reasons. One is the simple fact that passive income is INCOME. Why pass up the opportunity to have money come to you without having to work hard for it just because the money you have to put out effort for is greater? For this reason alone, I think that ignoring passive income is silly. By making your scores (and hopefully professional-quality recordings, as well) available for sale, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to bring in revenue that you really don’t have to work for. Sure, you may have to mail out the scores themselves, but compared to the effort that goes into writing a piece of music or rehearsing for a performance, sticking a score in an envelope and walking it to the post office is nothing! At the very least, the effort is commensurate with the amount of money you’ll earn for each sale.

Also, each sale you make will likely lead to additional passive income.

For example, when you sell a score, it’s entirely probable that the person buying it intends to perform the piece. And with performances come what? If you said royalties, you’ve been paying attention. Gold star! More income you didn’t have to work for. At all. You sat back while someone else did all the work of buying the score (which you got paid for), learning and rehearsing the piece, and getting up on stage in front of who-knows-how-many people and performing it. Then nine months later, ASCAP or BMI wrote you a check. All because you made your score available for sale and took the few minutes to address an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and pop it in the mailbox. Or maybe your scores – like mine – are available digitally, so you just checked your email, saw you had a sale, and moved your earnings from PayPal to your bank account. (An ING reasonably-high-yield savings account with pretty damned good interest rates. Oh noes! My little moneys are making more moneys!) Such herculean effort!

Up-front effort
OK, I’ll admit that passive income isn’t completely effortless. You have to put in some effort on the front end to make sure that you can earn it.

With physical scores, you have to engrave the score and either have copies on hand or be prepared to have the scores printed and bound on demand. But because you’re a professional (or working to become one), your scores are nicely engraved to begin with, and you’ve done the minor research you need to do to find a printer in your area that can service your needs. Since I just moved, I need to find a new print shop, or start farming it out to Limes or Subito or another company that’s been actively courting me for a few months now via Twitter. (If y’all are reading this – I haven’t forgotten about you!) Then you create a simple page on your (up-to-date) website letting people know how they can purchase your scores. You can even set up simple PayPal buttons that process payment automatically and collect shipping information that is emailed to you within nanoseconds of the sale being made. (This is almost obscenely easy to do, by the way.)

With recordings, of course there’s the effort and expense of the actual recording (provided that you’re the one bankrolling the project, as in my own planned series of recordings), plus cover design, packaging, etc. But that’s the expense of making the recording. Making it available for sale is as simple as setting up an account with CDBaby and letting them set you up with iTunes and Amazon. Click click, tippity-type, submit: done.

And with digital scores or recordings, you need to either set up a store-front or find an online retailer who fits your needs (for recordings, see my CDBaby comment, like, one sentence ago). Creating your own storefront, admittedly, can be time-consuming, though it’s getting easier and easier with all of the open source options out there. I’m a relentless DIY-er, and found the process incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. And how nice that I don’t have to give a cut of my sales to anybody but PayPal?

But once these initial setup steps are done, they’re done! Your works are out there. You’re not guaranteed any sales, but at least you have the option now. The only guarantee is that if your scores aren’t available, you won’t make any sales at all.

I think one of the biggest reasons to pursue passive income streams is the fact that they can be leveraged to create active income. At the very least, they lead to additional passive income, as in the royalty scenario. Or, if you have multiple recordings, a person who likes one recording of yours may buy another, and may continue to buy any subsequent recordings that you put out.

And also: In my experience, the purchase of a score and subsequent performance of the piece has a significant chance of leading to a commission of some sort.

My song cycle at least a moment was commissioned by a harpist who had discovered Starfish at Pescadero through a Google search while looking for a piece with instrumentation similar to George Crumb’s Madrigals, Book III. After requesting to buy a copy of the score, she performed Starfish, and immediately after the performance commissioned at least a moment. There was even talk of a companion piece, which I may still write because a) I want to, and b) I have the text setting permissions, so why waste them!?

Recordings, too, can be leveraged to create performances, score sales, additional recording sales, and even commissions. I leave it to your capable imaginations to come up with examples of how a person listening to a recording of your music can lead to additional passive or active income.

Speaking of passive income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.