Nigerian-American rapper and entertainer Fat Tony has maintained a creative resilience and unbridled enthusiasm through the past decade of his career. His musical footprint has left behind a treasure trove of alternative rap, spread across five albums, dozens of singles, and features on tracks by A$AP Rocky, Das Racist, and Bun B. Fat Tony’s sense of humor and courage to experiment mirrors the counter-cultural hip-hop artists who’ve inspired him, like De La Soul, Devin the Dude, and DJ Screw. Although he has spent the past few years bouncing back and forth between Los Angeles and New York while hosting shows for VICE and Super Deluxe, the formative rap scene in Houston where he grew up will always feel like home.
Editor’s note: This Creative Wisdom is part of our Music Industry Investigation. Visit the series page to find additional wisdom on the topic of making a living as a musician from Zola Jesus and Leron Thomas.
What’s the best way to make a living as a musician?
The best way is one that’s on your terms. You have to do what’s right for you depending on your values, where you live, and your resources. It’s best to make the most of what’s within your reach but don’t settle. Stay open to opportunities that you may have never considered. Travel often and meet people you can learn from, collaborate with, and befriend.
What’s the hardest part about making a living as a musician, as you’ve experienced it? How can you avoid that trouble?
The hardest part about making a living as a musician is not knowing how to manage money. It’s best to learn early on how to save and spend money wisely. There’s a lot of financial uncertainty as a musician, but spending within your means and saving can often help ease those worries. It’s smart to have several revenue streams, whether they’re another creative endeavor, a day job, real estate, or whatever makes sense for you. I say that’s important no matter how successful you are.
Do you think using social media—Instagram, Twitter—helps with sustainability?
I think social media helps with sustainability. It can help keep you on people’s radar – fans and folks in the industry. It’s a way to get more eyes on your work and engage with the people who support you. Use it as another means of expression, not just a bulletin board for what you’re releasing or working on. People want to understand how an artist thinks. Use it to bring an audience into your world. Those things bring people to your music, too.
Where are there opportunities for making money in the music industry currently?
Licensing and sync opportunities are a great money maker for musicians. Find representation such as a publisher who can connect you with music supervisors. Or, if you’ve got a substantial social media following, leverage that into a deal with a brand. It can be done tastefully and on your terms. Keep your overhead low when you tour and create projects. Don’t stretch yourself thin by spending outside of your means.
How important is merch to making a living?
Merch is important, especially on tour. Purchasing merch is how most fans choose to support their favorite musicians. You should stock up before you hit the road. But don’t overdo it! Order what you think you can realistically sell before the tour begins. If things are selling well, you can always order more and have it shipped to you. Ain’t nothing worse than coming home with crates of merch that didn’t sell.
Is it possible to make money as a musician through streaming? How much is reasonable to expect? How should someone just getting started wade into the streaming waters?
It’s possible to make money through streaming but what we receive isn’t nearly enough, in my opinion. The checks are better when you fully own your material and keep your costs low. If you’re self-releasing, I suggest putting your music on every platform from Spotify to Bandcamp and beyond.