While the idea of “passive income” sounds great, the term is usually misleading, as establishing passive income streams often requires a lot of work. While most passive income schemes involve starting a business or sinking some capital into investments, there are also ways to leverage your creative and artistic impulses: If you’re passionate about music, photography, or shooting videos, for example, you can turn those passions into income — even if you’re not necessarily a professional — by selling your work to stock media sites.
Stock sites have vast collections of media that people pay to licence for use in their podcasts, videos, websites, book covers, video games — basically any product that uses music, sound effects, images, or video very likely uses some volume of stock media (see the photo above as an example). And every time a photo or piece of music is licensed from a stock site, there’s a creator somewhere getting paid — and that could be you. If you’ve got a library of high-quality media just sitting on a hard drive somewhere doing nothing, here’s how you can turn it into actual money.
How do you sell stock media?
The first question, of course, is whether it’s worth it to make the effort. How much can you actually earn from a photo, or a bit of drone video you shot while on vacation?
There are a lot of factors that go into the value of a piece of media — the quality, how unique it is, and the popularity of the category it falls into, for example. Stock media is largely a volume business — stock sites expect you to upload a lot of material, and the more you upload (and the more regularly you upload fresh content) the better you’ll do in their search algorithms, and consequently, the better you’ll do in sales. If you’re not very active in adding material, your work can drop out of the search results.
Assuming you’re prepared to upload a lot of media and keep doing it, how much can you actually make?
How much can you make from stock photography?
Photos are the easiest pieces of media to sell, and they don’t pay much: On average, you can make between $0.02 and $0.25 per image per month. The actual per-image earnings vary from site to site, ranging from $0.10 to as much as $200. The sites that pay more tend to do much less volume, however, so you won’t necessarily make more working with them — and there are other reasons you might forego the highest potential payouts, as we’ll see. You can also earn bonuses of a few dollars per image if your photos are newsworthy — if you capture images of major events and upload them in a timely fashion, sites will pay more because of demand.
How much can you make from stock videography?
Selling stock footage can net you anywhere from $11 to $400 depending on how many videos you upload, how many stock sites you upload to, the prices you set, and, of course, your clip’s popularity.
How much can you make from stock music?
If you’re a musician composing songs, stock sites can earn you anywhere from $8 to $15 per track — and tracks can often sell multiple times, because you’re selling a licence to use the music, not the rights themselves. But if you’ve registered your work with a performing rights organisation (PRO) like ASCAP or BMI (more on that below), you’ll also get paid every time your music is then broadcast somewhere — this is a separate fee from the initial licensing. And you can get paid that performance fee every single time your work is broadcast, so if someone licenses your song for a commercial you can make a significant amount of money — as much as $30,000 to $40,000 annually. Of course, most stock music doesn’t earn quite that much, but if your songs get licensed a few times a month, you can still earn a few hundred bucks.
A few things to keep in mind here:
- No guarantees. It should be obvious, but you’re not guaranteed to make any money at all with stock media. You can upload 1,000 photos and sell exactly none of them, so take these potential earning estimates as very potential.
- Up-front costs. If you’re renting studios, hiring models, or paying any other up-front costs, your actual profits from stock sales will be smaller as opposed to simply uploading a batch of 4K drone footage or old songs you’ve got lying around.
- Licensing choices. You’ll be paid more if you work exclusively with some stock sites, and you’ll often have a choice about how your work can be used once licensed, which can also impact the amount of money you can make. You’ll need to review a specific site’s terms and make some decisions before you can estimate how much you might actually earn.
How to sell stock
So! You’ve got a catalogue of media you’ve created and you want to transform those digital files into digital gold. How exactly do you do that? First of all, if you’re going to be licensing music, consider joining a performance rights organisation (PRO). The U.S. has three main ones — ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Registering your work with a PRO can net you more money if your music is used in broadcasts or performed live as part of a production.
Now that you’re ready to sell your stock media, step one is to choose which sites you’re going to sell on. There are a lot of sites you can work with:
- Getty Images & iStock (images & footage)
- Shutterstock (images & footage)
- Envato (images, footage, music, more)
- Pond5 (images, footage, music)
- Storyblocks (images, footage, music)
- Alamy (images)
- Dreamstime (images & footage)
There are plenty of other places, but these are the major ones that anyone can join to start selling stock media. There are also aggregator sites like BlackBox, which let you upload your footage to a single platform and then handles farming it out to other sites. This reduces the sites you have to deal with to just one, simplifying the process.
There’s no reason not to join as many of these platforms as you want — you’re licensing your work, not outright selling it to them, so you can have the same clips, songs, or photos listed on multiple sites. Some sites will offer you a bigger payout for exclusive content, which might be worth considering, and some sites require a perpetual licence — which means once you upload media, you can’t remove it later.
To get the most out of your stock selling, consider the following:
- Quality over quantity. While high volume can improve your search results and get more money, flooding sites with low-quality garbage won’t get you anywhere. Consider that part of the algorithm stock sites use tracks how often your work actually sells, so having a bunch of crappy photos that no one buys on a site will slowly bury you in the listings, meaning your chances of ever selling anything will go down. Be choosy, and remember that higher-resolution photos and videos will always do better.
- Find a niche. If you go onto Shutterstock right now and search for “babies” you will get more than 5 million results, so if you’re trying to sell some photos of babies, you’d better have a hook that will make your content stand out. Better yet, try to find a category that isn’t oversaturated — the more specific and niche your work is, the better chance you’ll have of standing out in a crowded field.
- Do the metadata. When you upload stock, you’ll have to enter metadata like keywords and other descriptors. Don’t skimp on this — the more keywords you use, the better you’ll do in searches, and the more specific you are, the easier it will be for customers to find exactly what they’re looking for. That being said, don’t “stuff” keywords in there that don’t have anything to do with your media just to show up in searches — it won’t work, and can hurt you with the site’s algorithm.
- Be emotionally prepared. If you’re a creative sort, selling your work as stock can be a surprisingly emotional experience. It’s largely anonymous, and once licensed, people can do what they like with your work to a large extent — editing it, transforming it, and using it in ways you might not have anticipated. Make sure you’re ready.
Selling your photos, music, and footage as stock can turn into a tidy income if you’re prolific, talented, and committed. Like all passive income, it can take a lot of work to get it going — but it can also be worth it.
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