Advisors looking to jazz up their client list may want to consider a specific subset of the creative class: musicians.

I interviewed an up-and-coming country-music duo to help planners understand the financial realities of the music industry for performers who are not yet celebrities. Their insights may help you decide if this is a niche you would like to be involved in.

Brian Nutter and Blake Gray are a married couple based in Nashville who perform under the name Unbrakeable. Separately, they have been performing and writing music for decades. Nutter started as a guitar tech and has worked as a supporting guitarist for major country musicians. Gray is a songwriter who has a song-writing contract.

Dave: Blake, you are signed to a publishing house as a songwriter. What are the financial aspects of this?

Blake: I signed a three-year contract with them [Blue Guitar Music], but the company has a right to terminate the contract — or continue it — every year based on reaching certain requirements. Not writing songs that they like or not getting enough songs picked up by artists can cause you to be dropped.

Dave: When you become a songwriter and you sign a deal like that, how do you make money? Are you paid by the publishing company? Is it based on the songs that you sell? How does that work?

Blake: Well, it’s two things: You do negotiate out what they call a “draw.” They give me a check every month and I write one song per month that can be recorded as a demo. If I get a song cut [recorded and short listed to be put on a major artist’s album], my publishing company would take the money that I made from that song. Once I’d paid them my draw back in full, then I start to receive royalties.

Dave: Is there any financial difference if a song is put on an album and not released as a single?

Blake: Yes. As a writer, you only really make money if it’s released as a single. I have heard of people in town making upward of $500,000 from writing a song for an artist and it becomes a hit single — even just reaching No. 1 for one week. If you have a song put on an album and the album is successful, it may be $100,000. But if the album had mediocre success and your song was a filler song, you may receive a couple thousand dollars. 

Dave: For an advisor wanting to work with songwriters, what knowledge would you want them to have?

Blake: You have to believe in the music. It can’t just be about wanting to work with a musician. They have to listen to the songs and believe in the music.

Dave: Brian, you’ve worked as a guitarist for big country names. How does this
differ financially from what a songwriter may experience?

Brian: I’ve been a guitarist and guitar tech for a few artists. There are a lot of stepping stones to be a guitarist for a major artist. As a starting side guy for what we’d call a “baby act,” you’d be paid per show or rehearsal. The pay would range from $75 to $200 per day. On average, you’ll do between 125 and 275 shows a year. So for a year, you might get $9,375 to $55,000.

Then, you can move on to the bigger artists and, if you’re lucky, get salaried. The more successful that artist becomes, typically the higher your salary goes. It increases with your own reputation as being a solid player and someone that’s dependable and easy to work with on the road. Those numbers, depending on the artist that you’re working for, can easily hit six figures.

Dave: If you were to go into an advisor’s office and they asked what you did and you replied, “Guitarist for Keith Urban.” What would you want them to know?

Brian: If I’m not salaried, they would need to know that I’m a private contractor and that I am, basically, a musician for hire. As far as taxes go, some states don’t care too much if you’re just playing one gig, but they are concerned about local musician union dues. Some states don’t pester you, but anything you do in New York, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, … there is a bill that comes in the mail. If I’m doing lots of TV shows with someone like Keith, most people will pay by W-2 or 1099 at the end of the year. I normally have a stack of about 15 to 20 different W-2s and/or 1099s.

Dave: Let’s fast forward a little bit. Let’s say Unbrakeable is signed to a record label. What are the financial implications of this?

Brian: You can look at the label as a bank, really, just like a publishing deal. They give you a set amount of hours and a budget to do the record, videos, etc. Like a songwriter contract, you get paid a draw. When you make money, you pay the record company back the draw minus your percentage of the royalty proceeds.

Anything above your draw goes to you.

Dave: As an artist and songwriting duo, at what point in your career would you have made it financially, whatever that might be for you?

Brian: Making it financially would mean being debt free — we’ve paid off the house, and we’ve built the house we want on
our property.

Blake: For me, making it in this industry is being able to survive doing what we love. Being able to make payments on our house — I think that is “making it” right now. We don’t, by any means, want to be rich doing this. It’s just being able to support ourselves and have medical insurance and everything that everyone else wants.

Dave: If an advisor wants to start working with country musicians, how would you advise them to get into that?

Blake: Going to things like CRS [Country Radio Seminar] in Nashville and networking with people who know people.

Brian: I always tell people, if you’re just moving to town, find someone that does what you want to do. If you’re a financial advisor, go to Nashville and try to find a financial advisor that does what you want to do and make friends with them and figure out what they do, their circle of people and just keep evolving from there.


In talking with Brian and Blake, it became apparent that the musician lifestyle can be one of feast or famine. While supporting artists may be salaried, it should also be noted that tours don’t last all year long.
It may be that a commitment to an artist may last six months out of the year, and the rest of the time can be used for other income-generating activities. If this is the case, cash-flow management may be easier.

For a new advisor wanting to work with musicians or for a seasoned advisor who wants a new niche, it will take time. It can grow only as fast as it takes you to network with the right people. In meeting potential clients, your success will depend in large measure on showcasing your knowledge and your dedication to helping the musicians survive and succeed. 

Dave Grant, a Financial Planning columnist, is founder of Finance for Teachers, a planning firm, and the Finance for Teachers Network, in Cary, Ill. He is also the founder of NAPFA Genesis, a networking group for young, fee-only planners. Follow him on Twitter at @davegrant82.

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