At some point, you’ve probably heard a financial expert on TV say that it’s better to save money than to earn more. If you earn more money, the government taxes the amount, but a dollar saved stays in your pocket.
As musicians, we’re in a field with a low profit margin as it is – especially when we consider how long we practiced for free to get good enough to be heard. Every dollar helps, and you’ve almost certainly been paying too much for the following five things.
1. Strings, picks, and sticks
Be honest, guitarists: have you ever paid for a single string? What do you think the store markup was on that? Think about rice at the grocery store. If you buy the little two-serving bag, the price per pound is a dollar. If you buy the 50-pound sack of Basmati, you’re down to around eight cents a pound!
Open your wallet and get the Basmati bag of strings, picks, or drumsticks. After you see the bulk discount, you’ll see it’s worth it, and you’ll also save the time and expense of extra trips to the music store (where, let’s be honest, you were going to end up buying extra stuff anyway).
2. Cymbals or anything that has a warranty
I once played with a drummer who prided himself on destroying his cymbals. He played super-thin models to get more volume and would leave one or more of them shredded after a good set. He also scrupulously kept logs of his purchases and had all of his warranty information on file, making him the least popular man at the Paiste and Zildjian corporations because he kept getting free stuff.
How many of us are careful with documentation, and how many of us grab the shining new instrument or stompbox and recycle everything else in the box? We use gear hard, and a lot of it breaks, sometimes in annoying ways that we just grin and bear, and sometimes in a total failure. We’re eligible for a free repair or replacement more often that we think. For instance, did you know that all Gibson guitars have a limited lifetime warranty? Save your receipts and documentation, friends.
3. Amplifier tubes
Tube nerds only play tube, and some of them even invest in tube-testing equipment to see when their tubes need to be replaced. These tubes are costly, especially when your higher-end tube amp needs five or six of them.
We all remember when solid-state amps were pale imitations of tube quality. That’s no longer the case. There are great solid-state amplifiers out there now, and have been for some time. Why not skip buying tubes at all if you can find a sound that works for you? It would be like trading up to the Tesla S and no longer needing to buy gasoline (more on that later).
If you’re a band that sells CDs, then you’re paying to get them duplicated, for on-disc printing, and for the printing of a slick CD booklet. That means you know firsthand why the rich get richer and the poor get the pitcher: bands that make thousands of dupes are pennies per unit, but your costs cut your profits by 40 percent.
Some people are getting off the CD train, but if you play live, you have an opportunity to sell stuff. You should have something to sell. Why not stage a CD revolution and take control of the means of production? CD duping tech (and printers that can create high-quality on-disc imaging) aren't as expensive as you might think, and if you owned them, you’d be able to charge other acts to print their stuff and save them some money, too.
5. Your car or van
Plenty of musicians have decried the high carbon footprint inherent in being a traveling musician. You can’t take the train to a show unless you’re Bobby McFerrin and don’t have any instruments. You have to drive. That means you’re paying for gas. Even though the price has gone down over the last several years, it’s still a real expense, and one that musicians often fail to account for. As usual, what’s good for the planet is good for your wallet. You can find ways to use less, and pay less per gallon, plus you can get some of that money back.
First off, you should be logging all of your miles, even to rehearsals, and claiming that mileage on your taxes. See this page to learn how to claim your car-related artist expenses. Also, old work vans are total gas pigs. A mid-sized pickup truck with a cap (like a Nissan Frontier or Chevy Colorado) can be picked up fairly cheap, could be someone’s daily driver, and will get close to 30 MPG, all while hauling your gear out back. Also, if you do the math, it’s quite possible that two compact cars with your gear stuffed behind the driver’s seat will use less gas on the way to a show than your 1987 conversion van.
Lastly, there are gas stations that offer a membership discount on gas, and there are credit cards that offer cash back on gas purchases. These discounts are small, but if you’re a real road warrior, they can make a difference – and when trying to turn a profit, you should use every advantage available. There’s still plenty of money in the music business, and you can claim your cut, if you’re smart about your spending.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.