Everything you need to know about funding for musicians
10 questions for Kerstin Mayer, an expert in applying for funding in the pop music industry
Funding sources for musicians – there are much more of them than you might sometimes imagine. But how do you get the money, what expenses can be covered by funding and how do you actually calculate a realistic amount of funding? We asked an expert all of these questions and more.
Kerstin Mayer spent her youth in clubs, behind bars and as an events manager. What’s impressive is that alongside this rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, she trained as a tax specialist, studied media management and – as if that wasn’t enough – she completed an apprenticeship as an events manager. This background makes Kerstin Mayer not just exciting, but also an expert in project funding for musicians.
Kerstin Mayer is always on the go. After she spent a few years working in various media companies, she managed funding projects for artists and musicians at Initiative Musik, before recently managing the finances of a foundation that supports initiatives against racism. Because her passion is funding culture, she has advised freelance artists and musicians on applying for and processing funding projects since 2020. Find out more about her here. Enjoy the interview!
The phrase “cultural funding” really puts some people off. How did you come to this line of work and why have you stayed with it?
I am very busy and have tried my hand at lots of different things. Being a fully trained tax specialist doesn’t just mean that you are good at numbers, it also means you can get a job anywhere. I have also worked as an events manager and agent and quite honestly, if the pay were better, I’d probably still be standing behind a bar. I believe I felt the right synergy recently in my time at “Initiative Musik”, where I eventually started working in project support. From then on it all became clear. The link between the understanding of numbers, i.e. the economic aspect, coupled with experiences of live music and my interest in everything to do with music, have made it easy for me to familiarise myself with the issue of funding and to support musicians in an area which is so important, but also very complex.
Please tell us beginners why, in your opinion, funding is so important and so exciting!
I think that funding is totally empowering! Because funding means that as an artist, you are not forced to take the first good deal that comes your way. For some of the artists I have worked with, applying for the money was in itself a positive because through that experience alone they learned to formulate their goals and come up with an annual plan.
These funding applications are a way of formatting artists’ mindsets and funding applications inevitably force people into doing this due to their complexity. Suddenly, making music somehow becomes political. The money used for cultural funding is public money, whether it comes from the Federal, state or municipal government. These funding programs are designed to enable a diverse cultural landscape and not to think in terms of the mainstream. It is about messages and not primarily about numbers. Funding is so important because without it, our music landscape would be very monotonous and even less diverse. This message is also very important for artists.
As we have already discussed, you have spent a few years at Initiative Musik advising artists and of course, have seen a lot. Including an application from me and my band. What are the classic pitfalls to avoid? How do musicians make the perfect application?
I say to every musician, “Pay attention to the duration of the project!” because things that are already underway before funding is approved, can no longer be funded. This is something I see quite a lot: musicians will come along and say, “We have already recorded a couple of songs but then we ran out of money and can’t afford to finish the EP. We want to finish it now”. Then unfortunately I have to say to them that it is too late for funding; you can only apply for money for a new project that has not yet started. These situations are always annoying.
What expenses and budget allocations should always be taken into account in funding applications, especially in terms of promotion, advertising and the like?
For this I always recommend that they ask their fellow artists what they have done. Getting quotes from promoters is always a good move. Non-
binding ones, of course. The most important thing is to ask yourself the right questions for the allocation of your funding. Ask yourself:
- What do I want to achieve with my project?
- Where is my target group?
- What is the scope of the project? Across Germany? Europe? Or even the world?
- What is the best way to reach my target group?
- Do I want to reach an existing fanbase? Or a new one?
- What is the purpose of my application?
The answers to these questions also help tremendously when compiling a convincing project description so that the central theme of the application is obvious. Ultimately, funding bodies want to provide funding in a sustainable way. They want to see that their money will help artists take an important step on their artistic career ladder.
What costs are not usually eligible?
First and foremost: only the costs which are necessary for the project and lie within the funding period are eligible. What will be granted funding and what will not be is usually outlined in the respective funding guidelines. What is important to remember is that funding is not there to pay for luxuries! For example, if an artist wants to deduct travel expenses, they must keep within the maximum rates allowed in the Federal Travel Expenses Act.
90% of all funding is project funding. This means that permanent expenses, for example, rehearsal room rental or the purchase and maintenance of instruments, are not eligible. This is because they are used and needed independently of the project, the length of which rarely exceeds one year. This is difficult to argue against. The following question is also important for the funding institutions: will the project manage to be a success even without funding?
How do you prepare the applications with the artists?
By having them write and file the applications. My job is to provide in-depth advice and clarification for funding applications. So I don’t start by taking the job of writing the application away from “my” artists, or coming up with something for them, but I brief them and go through their draft application with them. I then check the application for plausibility and polish it so that any ambiguities can be eliminated in advance.
I think it’s really crucial that the artists themselves put into words what they are planning. This is necessary for the whole process; after all I am not the one who will carry out the project and therefore have a vision for it.
In addition, the application should also reflect the character of the applicant. Each applicant has their own style. My intention is clear: help people to help themselves! The musicians will need to understand what this means. What they are all about! My artists should be as well prepared as possible when they start the potential funding.
How does a musician calculate a realistic advertising budget in advance?
Many musicians are expanding their portfolio of tasks. In particular, the role of entrepreneur and the marketing aspect and are more and more frequently being performed by the musician. This is mainly due to social media. It’s now possible to create a sponsored post or something similar. It has become easy to achieve a lot with a lower budget. Success at this depends on various factors. For example: how savvy are you with the content that is to be generated? And how much of an entertainer are you?
If an artist already has a label I would look to have a discussion with them. They can churn out advertising budgets easily. Or ask well-known people who have already done it. I also think crowdfunding campaigns are very exciting when it comes to communications and marketing. Even if this is very, very labour intensive for the artist. For example with subscription services, such as Patreon, it is inevitable that musicians will spend more time producing content and communicating and less time on making music. But if you’re clever with it, crowdfunding can be great.
So crowdfunding is independent of your application for funding, but it also makes sense because projects are rarely 100% funded. Funding bodies love to see artists use their own initiative, i.e. the artist sourcing their own money from crowdfunding etc. This is an important indicator for the funding body that there is interest in the art and/or the artist and so a potential market exists. I am a big fan of this. Crowdfunding is much easier because there is less bureaucracy than with public funds. You don’t have to adhere to any rules as to how, when and where you want to spend the money and at the end all you need to do is present the project. On the other hand, the spending of public funds must be documented using a so-called expenses report, which can be very complex.
You advise musicians, provide funding tips on your channels and hold workshops on platforms such as “Music Pool Berlin”. What was the pandemic like for you?
You can say that there was and is a real run on funding. For many, it is essential to obtain funding right now in order to continue working and for some artists, it is the only prospect for financial support. It is for this reason that during the pandemic I set slightly lower prices or came across artists whose finances didn’t look very rosy. Above all, I’m here to help people. In addition, the political component of my job is very important to me and I also try to support members of marginalised groups.
Currently I only give online consultations. This allows me to work from anywhere and I would also like to keep doing this after the pandemic. Musicians who live in Berlin have the advantage of being able to book me through Music Pool and thus save money – but it’s very important to me to make sure that people across Germany can access my offer. Especially as those who live in rural areas are often neglected when it comes to communication. As I mentioned, I try to support marginalised groups, regardless of the pandemic. This is a real passion for me.
Do you find it important for musicians to visit workshops?
Yes, definitely! It’s always very helpful to inform yourself about relevant topics. I find that you don’t have to know about or be able to do everything – that would probably restrict your creativity – but you should at least have some idea of how to do things. Especially in professional contexts. This applies to every area of life, so why should it be any different here? Especially for up-and-coming bands I find it’s important to get to know things like marketing, financing and contract law. If you know a little bit about these subjects, you won’t get any nasty surprises and will avoid disputes with the label or other cooperation partners.
If you were the Queen of applicants, what improvements would you want to implement in the world of funding?
If we’re talking about pop music funding, it would be great if each State had its own funding institution. This would mean that not all artists would have to rely on Federal funding and people who live in rural areas would also be included. This is why we need financial support programs at the State level with lower thresholds. There is support at the State level. However, it is usually linked to tangible assets such as further education, infrastructure improvements or expansion of the musician’s network.
I think funding measures below the Federal level with a lower proportion self-funding and a higher share of public funding are essential for
musicians to get off to a decent start. When you have used up that funding and due to your increased profile want to apply for funding at the federal level, the proportion of self-funding is 60% which, for example, before the pandemic had to be raised at Initiative Musik and hopefully was no longer such a big hurdle. Clearly, 40% funding sounds low at first, but Initiative Musik gets a lot done and is also economically orientated. The money that they give out is not there to ensure that a project can actually take place, but it is there to enable professional artists to give their projects a special touch. In order to guarantee a certain degree of professionalism, an application requires two parties: on the one hand the artist or the band and on the other hand a company, for example, the label or management. For example “Der Musikfonds”, which specialises in experimental and avant-garde music, funds projects that are not commercially orientated. When you understand the philosophy of the various funding institutions and the logic that underpins their funding, you can better judge whether or not an application makes sense.
Be that as it may, there is a lack of assistance at lower levels. It cannot be that pop music funding for all artists only begins at the federal level. It is also time for popular music to be regarded as more than just entertainment music. In my opinion, the current pop culture landscape shows quite clearly that this is an outdated view. Ultimately, I’d like to see more recognition and financial support for artists at all levels.
We would like to thank Kerstin Mayer for talking to us.