The Business of the Biz, Part 1

Written By: Greg Forest - Mar• 12•14


Defining Your Goals, Product and Image

Every year thousands of new independent artists release new music to the world and the major label releases number in the hundreds. Needless to say there is a lot of competition out there for fans, listeners and media outlets. You are going to have to mix it up with your competitors – not necessarily in a ruthless manner, but you will have to keep moving fast and be creative at the very least.

Musicians are a lot like people in the film industry; they always have a “deal” in the works. “We opened a dialog with a major label this week” could easily mean they called and got the mailing address to send the demo. “We’re working on the new CD” could mean they bought the first microphone for the project studio.

As a consultant and producer, when it comes to what I think about many new acts, I keep my opinion to myself. It is generally not complimentary in nature. Shortly into our first meeting I can see that this band is clueless. In the band’s mind though, they see the future clear as the azure skies of a summer afternoon. They are in a stadium before swarms of screaming fans thanking Sting for opening for them. What I see is a band breakup within months as the lead singer’s girlfriend is winking at the bass player when the band’s attention is elsewhere. You don’t have to be very savvy to discern the bullet from the bull.

Speaking of bull, you will have to learn to wade in it if you want be a player in this business and become a master of shameless self-promotion. You never tell anyone outside the band that things are going nowhere fast and the band is withering on the vine. It is a fact of life that you have to keep your business associates and the public in promotional hip waders throughout your career.
How will you define yourself as an artist or a representative or contractor for an artist? The following few paragraphs may sound like old adages, but regardless of what role you will be playing in this drama of the music industry, there are a few things that will be required for success at any level.

Your Tools? Talent, Capability and Competence. Talent is what drives this business. Musical talent, engineering, promotional and management talent all come to play. The performers aren’t the only stars in this business. After Minnie Vanilli’s lip-sync Grammy a few decades back, we all have to admit that talent isn’t always a necessary part of a popular entertainment package. In Vanilli’s case, talent wasn’t necessary but he still had to look good on camera and lip-sync convincingly. A sound or recording engineer’s personal appearance or musical capabilities are unimportant but they need to know how to tweak a knob and bring out the best in an artist’s performance.

Whatever claim you stake on the music industry terrain, try to be the best in your genre or field – at least at a local or regional level. Learn from others and stay on top of what’s happening. Never forget you are competing and the other players are serious and are playing for keeps.

Reliability: Concert venues like bands that show up on time and ready to rock. Record labels like master recordings delivered when the contract specifies. Band members appreciate not waiting for a member late to rehearsal. Bands like club owners that pay what was agreed upon and agents like their commissions in a timely manner. I could go on and on but you get my drift. Many times, I have seen the career of an incredibly talented individual torpedoed by the same talent’s unreliability. If a performer is late to a recording session, the clock is rolling, money and time are wasting and people who could be creating are twiddling their thumbs waiting for someone who deems their own convenience more important than other’s time. I view time as not only money but as a non-renewable resource that each of us is allotted a certain amount of. Wasting my time is stealing part of my future.

Honesty and Integrity. Many would fault me for including these two words in the same paragraph with the music industry or politics but the fact of the matter is that your long-term success is built on everyone winning to some degree and building business and legal relationships that last. The industry is full of dishonest people trying to exploit you and some are wildly successful. Over time, however, you will be drawn to repeat business with those who have treated you fair and equitably. People will be inclined to conduct repeat business with you or forge artistic relationships if you are trustworthy. Even though there are thousands of players in the business, the business is like a small town and your bad reputation can travel much farther than you might think. When two other people are talking about you, how do you want to come off to them?
Some parts of this industry are time-sensitive and deadline-oriented. Film and television scores have to be delivered on time. Any delay can cost an incredible amount of money. If you are collaborating on a deadline project, you want to make sure your partner is reliable and will deliver the goods on time.

Flexibility. The road to music success is littered with potholes and speed bumps. Well-laid plans sometimes have to be modified or even discarded on the run. Sometimes you have no room to be flexible, but if you can make an accommodation for a business associate, do it. It can only generate good will.

Defining Goals
Having a game plan is essential to building any career. You don’t have to start with the whole career-spanning game plan in place; just a plan that will get you to the finish line of your next goal in the big picture. Break the long term into components. The first thing that a musician or writer should work on is their chops. If you are going to be a performing professional you will need to be competitive with other artists and bands at the same level you are on. Hone your skills.
Let’s start with the assumption that you are a performer ready to leave the garage. There is more than one path to success, depending on which fork in the road you will be traveling. A pop performer or songwriter would have a different career strategy than a classical performer or composer. There are legalities for both careers and many similarities but the audience, marketing and goals may be vastly different.

The First Ensemble aka The Garage Band
The vast majority of musicians will be performing and building their careers playing in bands. There are exceptions. Some singer-songwriters, most notably on the folk circuit, start their careers as solo artists and essentially remain that way for their entire careers with a few collaborations along the way, but the lion’s share of new talent comes out of garages in the form of bands.

It is also very uncommon for a performer to remain with the first band they start out with. The breakup of your first band is almost inevitable as the music progresses and it is revealed that some players have more talent, dedication or energy than other members. It is not uncommon for a band to fire its most talented member for being a “prima donna.” Early on, you will be experimenting with other players to gain knowledge and start building your network. Keep any business arrangements simple, flexible and revocable.

The first step out of the garage or rehearsal hall is the first gig. As things progress and the band increases its following and performance acumen, legalities should start appearing.

Most casual weekend bands are, whether formally declared such or not, a general partnership. The band member all share equally in the fees received for gigs. There may be small adjustments[em]gas money, the PA owner getting a bit more but in essence the band, its name and its revenue are all shared equally. Where does it become a good idea for a band to start to formalize itself in a legal sense?

Next installment we will look over the shoulders of a budding new band to see how they deal with even moderate success with their business model. Its a small quartet with four members with four agendas. See you next issue.

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