Read an Excerpt
The Music Industry and You
Ready to jump feet-first into the music business? First, ask yourself these questions:
What is your dream?
How do you define success?
Whom do you want to be involved with?
How do you know whom to trust?
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Imagine a junior high school kid in the back of science class, drawing his dream drum set on the back of a school folder … First of all, double bass drums: they had to be 24 inches each. Four toms because, back in the late ’80s, how could you possibly have less than four toms across the front? He draws the toms: 10, 12, 13, and 14 inches. Then two floor toms: a 16 and an 18. For those of you who are not drummers, maybe it would help to imagine a guitar or a keyboard instead. For those drummers that came up in that time, you may remember the Pearl Drums advertisement for the CZX drums? I can still see in my mind’s eye the shot of that tan or wood-finished kit of even, “box” sizes: 10x10, 12x12, 13x13, 14x14, 16x16, and 18x18…
Next, the kid draws the cymbals: at least four crashes—why not? Auxiliary hi-hats, two Chinese cymbals to flank both sides and—might as well go for the gold—a big old gong, suspended behind the kit!
As you may have already guessed, I was that kid drawing those pictures, sitting at the back of Mr. Cepeck’s eighth-grade science class. At the time, it was the biggest kit I could imagine, because it was supporting the biggest dream I could dream—a life in music, playing drums with a killer band in front of screaming fans in a sold-out stadium.
Of course, I now know that my dream—as sweet as it was to an eighth-grade boy who just wanted to play the drums—was full of holes. Now, I’m certainly not saying it’s bad to have a dream, but if people had asked me back then to actually define success, I would have told them that they just didn’t understand what I was going to be and do. You don’t get it, I would have told them.
In reality, I was the one who didn’t get it.
I chased after that dream, though, and I caught it, but I also lost it a number of times. Why? Because I didn’t really have a well-defined goal or a solid foundation for my dream.
Here’s the moral: Dream big—to the extreme, even. But also make sure you can define your goals, and then build a plan for taking the right steps to make that dream come true—even if that takes the shape of smaller goals along the way.
How Do You Spell “Success?”
Take a second and go back to the list of questions at the beginning of this chapter. You might be surprised—or maybe not—to know that very few artists have truly asked and answered these questions. Sadly, failing to deal with these simple, yet vital issues can destroy a career, a band, or a chance at the dream—even before an artist or a band is out of the gate.
The fact is that success in the music industry can have many different definitions. Of course, everybody thinks about the super-duper, A-list stars who achieve fame and wealth beyond imagination—at least, that’s the delusion. The numbers reported in some entertainment magazines do not give the whole story of the real income and what that artist actually gets to keep after labels, investors, producers, engineers, graphic designers, distribution, booking agents, stage hands, and tons of other people are getting paid. Such numbers are far from clear and yet everyone assumes that this defines “success” in the music business.
A perfect example of such skewed assumptions is a posting I saw on Facebook of a house with a water slide coming out of the second floor into a pool—a four-million dollar listing, at minimum. The artist posted it and made reference to this being his new home once he sold a few thousand albums, and I thought to myself, this guy would not be able to rent this place for the summer if he only sold a few thousand albums, much less buy it.
The average artist has a naïve, unrealistic, and disconnected view of what the music industry is, how it works, what is involved in “making it,” and what actually is happening behind the scenes. Too many artists take at face value what they see on some TV documentary or read in a fan magazine. Whether you are working with others in a band, looking to connect with a manager, an agent, a label, or an investor, or you just want to work in the industry, it is more crucial than ever to know what you are working for and toward.
Just to be clear: this book is not geared to helping you become a superstar. If that is all you are looking for, you might want to stop reading now. Now, it’s certainly possible that by organizing, implementing, and executing a customized plan you might make it to that level, but it’s a long shot: a very, very long shot.
Think of the road to success as climbing a tall mountain. But instead of just looking at the summit of the mountain—your dream of stardom—you need to pack for the ascent and plan some places on the trail to stop and rest: you work for the big goal while achieving the small ones along the way. You need to have the right boots, the right ropes, the right team to climb with, and the provisions to sustain you during the journey to continue to move onward and upward.
Maybe you don’t reach the peak, but while working toward that goal, could you achieve other goals? Could you find happiness and a different definition of success that feels right for you? Maybe you’re not selling out the Kingdome and having records go platinum, but you are touring six to nine months out of the year and you have licensed songs in numerous TV shows, video games, and films. You have a solid fan base that comes to your shows. Maybe you are not playing to 20,000 people every night, but you are always able to pull in 200 to 2,000. Maybe you put together the right plan and hire the right agent, the right distributor, and the right promotional team. Let’s say that for 20 solid years, everyone in your group is able to pull in $60,000.00 a year—after taxes—as well as having medical, dental, and life insurance.
How is that not successful? Maybe you didn’t reach the million-dollar “peak,” but while heading up that mountain path you are doing what you love and making a much better living than the majority of Americans today. Can you call that a failure?
Your definition of success is subject to change by your will and your choice, but only if you have the plan, the gear, the patience, and the drive to work toward the biggest goals while still achieving the small ones along the way.
Think about your definition of success. What kind of salary do you need to make to be “making it” in music? When you say, "I want to be a musician," what does that entail creatively, financially, and time-wise?
When you ask yourself these questions, are you also asking the question, “How can I get signed?” Are you asking yourself, “How can I succeed as an independent musician?” If you are in a band, are the expectations and definitions clear with each of the members?
Setting standards and working backwards to getting there is a great way to plan. What salary would you and the other band members like to be making while getting to play, taking care of your responsibilities, and being able to afford a good life, but without the excess dreams of millions and millions? When you are able to put together the numbers that define your success, it will be easier for a music consultant, a real label, a real manager, or a real agent to come up with a plan that takes into account your goals and the beginning steps to get there.
Remember, once you have tallied up the totals and taken out the taxes, you still have to add all the considerations and costs for touring, recording, and other budgetary aspects. If you are assuming that a label or manager is doing some of the work for you, don't forget to subtract their percentage. As a very simple overview, if you want to net $250K in a year for a band—especially if labels and other people are involved—you are going to have to bring in a million to cover all the costs, pay out the investors, and take care of business. The more control you have and the fewer other parties that are involved, that overhead percentage will drop and the more of the gross you will get to keep.
Planning responsibly and having a nice overview of reality to go with your picture of success can help you make the best choices while still retaining as much control as possible over your own destiny.
I believe that the artists who only look at the summit are the real failures; they are often the ones who have the hardest time getting there. Those who try to shortcut the process—renting a helicopter to avoid the long, hard climb—also pay dearly. They get to the top too fast, and with too little effort, and it costs them their rights and the bulk of their profits. They give it all away just to get to the top, and often as not, they end up in an avalanche of poverty, desperation, and failure.
“Waiting to be discovered, hoping to be seen, wishing someone else would do the work, wanting to make it big and dreaming of being rich and famous just like your heroes is submissive, passive, foolish, weak, and ineffective.
Take your desire for dreams, your goals and your ambition, then make it fuel for the fire to light your ass up; get to work on the path to make it happen. The energy, the effort, the execution, and the actions make dreams come true—not waiting, hoping, wishing, wanting, and dreaming.”
On the other hand, those who dream of the million-dollar mansions while patiently investing in the more modest purchases available to them, those that think about wads of cash but still discipline themselves to save the pennies—these are the artists I’d put my money on to make it over the long haul. Those who play with the same passion for an audience of 10 as they would for a crowd of 10,000 are the ones who will find the best chance of success today. And though their images of success may change at various stages of the climb, they have already defined success by laying the best foundation. They will be the ones who can make the good decisions and see the bigger picture as they learn more about the industry and mature with the experience and information they take in.
To really work for you, your customized plan for success should lay out the “peak” aspects of your dream as well as the requirements to make that journey. You will need to alter your path and adapt to changes along the way, but the more you plan and navigate in the right direction, the more you will achieve. Planning helps you in the short term as you move toward your long-term goals; helping you remember not to waste time here or blow money there, because your aim is directed at the place you want to go.
Honestly, I wish I had learned this lesson a long time ago. I had a lot of fun, but I could have had a little less fun and could have planned a little more for the long term, arriving at the place I defined as success.
My Personal Definition of Success
To me, success in the music business means you are living your own dream, supporting yourself as you responsibly increase your ability to have the things in life that you desire. I don’t put a number on it, because just like the paths to success, everyone’s number is different.
My personal definition of success involves having enough money for the lifestyle I want, debt- and commitment-free, with saving and investment included. For me, success involves living securely off dividends and royalties so that I can work more on the projects I want, even with artists who might not be able to afford me—but whom I believe in. I’d like to be able to donate a few speaking engagements each month and a few consultations to those who have the drive but not the ready cash.
I have timeline goals, too: goals that include reaching certain financial benchmarks and certain benchmarks for my consulting and speaking activities. I have a time frame within which I’d like to be able to afford to reduce the hours I put in each day.
For me, in other words, “success” is defined by the different benchmarks I achieve and the different steps I take in my own personal journey. Hitting these targets along the way is evidence of success to me, just as much as reaching the end goal.
What about Music as a Hobby?
While we’re talking about success, it’s probably worthwhile to ask yourself this question: Do you really want to be a musician full-time? Or is making music as a hobby more like what you want to do? It’s a fair question, and a lot of people are perfectly happy with being music hobbyists rather than full-time musicians.
Are you fine with the short-term wins and don't care about long-term success? Maybe you’re in one of those bands that can fill a local venue over and over but just doesn’t seem to break through to any bigger level—and you’re okay with that. Maybe you know that person who claims to be a manager, a booking agent, or a promoter: the one who can get all his or her close friends and maybe a few strangers out to a venue, a party, or an event now and then, but never can seem to make any real money for themselves or the band.
Maybe for these folks, music is actually a hobby: a fun thing, a side project that is not intended to make anybody a living. That’s fine. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist. It can be a lot of fun to put together fun little events, gigs, parties, or whatnot, but at least be honest and make sure that all of those around know exactly what your goals are. Don’t make the mistake of confusing a hobbyist—no matter how much he or she professes to know about “the business”—for a music industry professional.
Let me say it again, though: the hobbyist can still be successful. Being a hobbyist does not equate to “failure”; it is simply a different success definition for a different person—the artist who doesn’t want to take his or her music or career to a full-time level and prefers it to be part-time. This may not indicate a lack of drive or ambition; these people just have different goals, different dreams, and different desires. Maybe they just do it for the art and the love of music. Maybe they want to do the work, but don’t want the time away from family. Maybe their day job is too good to trade for a music career. For whatever reason, the part-time concept just works for them.
And how can you fault that? If an artist out there loves to play once a month within a very small radius of home or to make a record that might not even sell beyond friends and family, and if that makes the artist happy, isn’t that success? Sure it is. Just don’t confuse the hobbyist with the person who is making the long climb toward “peak” success.
You, the Music Business, and the Business of Music
The misconceptions about the music industry and how to make it in music are loud and constant. The industry itself assists in perpetuating stories of that one artist who breaks through from out of the blue and has an amazing career. Reality shows, interviews, and the Internet combine to lead many to believe that the road to success is a fairy tale. Unfortunately, only a very, very small percentage of artists get to experience that fairy tale path, and those who do very often come to realize the illusion that fairy tale truly represents.
You may even be able to think of a band you know that was playing small rooms, with each member holding a basic day job and living check to check. They practiced, recorded, struggled, and played everywhere they could. Suddenly they come out with an amazing album. Then you immediately start to see them in nicer cars and spending more money.
That should raise a couple of red flags, right there. When a larger record company, investor, management group, or agent spends a fortune on the recording of an album and gives artists things like cars, clothes, and money, this not only gives the artists an incentive but also locks them in to the people giving the stuff. What the bands don’t recognize is that the record company, investor, or whoever wants all that money back—and with interest. Record labels are businesses, and they use artists’ dreams as leverage to lock musicians into deals with crazy percentages. All the band sees is the light at the end of the tunnel: the ability to quit their jobs, play all the time, and live the superstar lifestyle. They don’t realize that the light is an oncoming train—a terrible contract that will own and control their choices for years to come.
Who Do You Trust?
It happens all the time: artists sign the dotted line but do not read the contract. They hear the hype and it blinds them to the reality and length of the contract. Words and phrases buried in these contracts can restrict the artist from making choices that anyone would assume would be theirs to make. Examples include what you can and cannot say on camera; what you can and cannot do with the songs you have written; and where you can and cannot go to play or promote your music. Some of these contracts put artists into what amounts to indentured servitude. Those cool new logos, the bios, and the merchandise are created by other people, and sometimes, basic merchandise profits are not given to the artists.
Artists on all levels can be badly hurt by the deals they sign. The reason it doesn’t seem that way with the larger artists is because when the revenues from sales, touring, and merchandise are in the millions, the small percentages that those artists get still amount to a lot of money. But as time goes by, sales and attendance decline and even these formerly multimillion-dollar acts are now crying foul. In other words, ten percent of hundreds of millions is not a bad deal, but ten percent of a million is a lot less than what some of these former megastars are used to. But the contract still requires them to record a certain number of albums, do a certain number of performances, and otherwise be under binding agreements for years and years.
This can also apply to smaller labels. Sometimes bands are signed into deals with smaller companies that will make them less attractive to larger labels and managers. Many small labels will incorporate percentages into contracts that aren’t justified by the work the label does. This can include long-term publishing deals, royalties, and other percentages taken from the artists’ revenues. The goal for these labels is to continue to get a piece of the artists if they go big, but many of these artists will not get better or larger deals precisely because larger labels and managers don’t want to deal with the hassle created by the deals done by the smaller players.
The More You Know …
All these cautionary tales are why I push so hard for artists to look at the business side of things as they go into the entertainment world. Learn the industry. Work to understand the loopholes, and never forget that if it seems too good to be true—especially in the music industry—you can pretty much bet that it is.
I’m not saying you should turn down every deal, but you should read the contracts and take the time to learn what you don’t know. If something is unclear, don’t ask the guy trying to get you to sign to explain it to you. Get a lawyer to review it. Talk to a disinterested third party, someone who is not tied to the contract in any way. And don’t ask for a lawyer from the label or manager that’s handing you the contract. As you review the agreement in front of you, think about these possibilities and how they would be affected by the document you’re thinking of signing:
• Look to a realistic career and not just number-one hits and playing for thousands of people. Think about the spectrum of sales that are possible;
• Look to creating as much as you can by yourself so you can bring more to the table;
• Look to avoid having labels, managers, and agents take away from what is yours and take you in a direction you don’t want to go;
• Look to the possibilities of licensing your songs to movies, television, commercials, video games, corporate videos, and various websites that use music;
• Look to how you can license your songs to other performers, or even hire performers in other countries to sing your song in other languages;
• Look at the industry with a set of eyes and a mindset that still wants to go to the top in the way you always dreamed, but with the goal of achieving self-sustaining, long-term success, giving away as little in percentages as you can;
Scammers and Liars and Hype, Oh, My!
In every field—from politics to entertainment and everywhere in between—there are scammers, liars, and fakes. A close look at the music business reveals a host of those who are being deceptive: who are going to try to use you, take advantage of you, and make what they can from you. Of course, there are also those that are actually in it to help you and want to see you succeed. Yes, it sucks and it shouldn't be that way—but it is. Your two best defensive weapons are doubt and honor.
First, when you initially hear it … doubt it. Make sure anyone you are getting involved with, any company, manager, agency, or contract, is clear, clean, and reviewed correctly. It is very easy to sell dreams to people who already want desperately to believe them. Artists hear that they are on the horizon of what they have wanted for years, and they bypass common-sense knowledge and red flags that would go up anywhere else. If someone is pushing you to sign on the dotted line, then and there, hoist the red flag ... fast.
Doubt first; do your double-checks and your research; make sure things line up; and ask a lot of questions. Those are tips for success that can save you from getting locked into a working relationship with someone who is a liar, a user, or is otherwise going to drag you down.
Second, have honor. Be true and honest in a business that is commonly not that way. Get the reputation for being the one people can trust. This will help you along in a way you can’t even imagine. An independent musician with honor and a reputation for telling the truth is going to shine brightly.
Trust and Doubt in Today’s Music Industry
I used the word “doubt” above very deliberately; it can be your best friend. The fact is, trust is a scary thing in the music business. Hell, trust is a scary thing in any business or any relationship. It should be developed over time; most people need proof and good reason to trust someone—their word and their work. Trust means giving up or sharing control with someone else involving things that are very important to you and your career. When the music business is exposed to open view, you can see how trust can be a real problem.
Yet, so many people ask for trust so fast. In this ADHD, fifth-gear, Facebook-updating, Twitter-posting world we live in, people are asking others to trust them right out of the gate. They are looking for full compliance, and they even get upset when someone doesn't believe them or trust them right after meeting them. If that does not raise a red flag for you, you are in a lot of trouble. Shortcutting in this area will also cut short any chances for your success in music.
When it comes to clients that I produce or consult with, I tell them in the initial consultation: Don't trust me until I have earned your trust. Ask questions, have doubts, but work to move forward. Do your research on me and on what I am saying you should do. I believe this helps build the foundation of trust, and it forces the artists to do some homework, to form the habit of checking out other people and companies before they hire, follow advice, or sign on the dotted line.
For sure, it’s still possible that things can go wrong, even with those whom you have checked out, researched, and decided to trust, but you greatly lessen the chances of a bad situation if you do your homework.
One important key is getting straight answers to your questions—answers that you can understand. If you ask a question that can't be answered right then, the other party should get back to you promptly, after getting the information you need. If the question doesn’t have a simple answer, that’s fine, as long as the other person tells you that up front and explains why this is the case.
Perfect example: As a music consultant, I am asked all the time, "How much does it cost to make an album with you as the producer?" Honest answer: I have no idea. But then I discuss all the variables that go into setting a budget for an album: What kind of album? How many songs? How many instruments are being tracked? How much time are you allotting for the sessions? How is the endurance of your vocalist? Are we adding in post-production, duplication, graphics, and the initial launch? Is there a pre-set budget? Are you going to raise the money? And about thirty other questions.
Then I follow up by offering a one- to two-hour blast consultation, where we lay out a basic budget and get a sense of different possibilities and avenues of revenue and how much it will cost. At that point, an artist can talk to me about production or they can go to another producer, but at least they walk away with the blueprint of a budget and a plan. That is much different than some producer who says “Sign on the dotted line,” pulls a number out of thin air, and otherwise stays very vague.
Shameless plug: the above scenario is also my most popular service.
You are not stupid; so don't act like you are.
Bottom line: Ask questions. Ask for the details. If something is confusing, then tell the person you are talking to it is confusing. If you are about to spend money, you should know exactly what you are receiving, how you will receive it, and what your responsibilities are. Trying to act all cool and nodding your head when you don't know what is being said or you are unclear with the details makes you look like a clueless bobble-head doll—a sheep just waiting to be sheared.
If the other person gets frustrated by your questions or gives broad, vague, or confusing answers, hoist another red flag. Ask for a client list, then go out and contact them. See if they are really happy. The fact is that people can only bullshit you as much as you want to be bullshitted. They may claim to hold the silver platter of your dreams, but you have to lift the cover to see if there is really anything there.
So, as I mentioned earlier: Watch out for the people who say “trust me” right out of the gate. Words are nothing. They are easy to say, easy to write, and easy to sell. But actions are what trust should be based on. Patience and growing in understanding, seeing promises fulfilled—this is how trust is earned. Honor yourself, your music, and your art by giving trust only as it is deserved and earned.
I always tell artists I produce that I make no promises or guarantees. I was never with a single label or company as either a drummer or producer. I was a hired gun, and I jumped around quite a bit. This broad experience forms the basis for the information that I share—both the things I did right as well as the failures.
Chances are, there’s not a single entity that can provide you with success—not even me (as much as I hate to admit it). More often, you will find numerous people and various resources to help you. Just be picky. Find out who is saying it or writing it, where the person comes from, and what his or her beliefs and approaches are. This will help you build a much stronger resource list.
Anyone can tell you anything, and it’s great to reflect on what you hear and always be respectful to someone offering advice. However, it takes a mature and patient mind to navigate through all the information and find the best road possible.
Opinions on Opinions
And speaking of advice …
In the music business there are a lot of avenues for advice, consulting, coaching, counseling, ideas, expertise, and everything in between. It’s always good to research where you are getting the “help” from, but it’s also important to define what you’re looking for and if you’re receiving information that’s relevant. Help is a scary word, even scarier when many of those who claim to know how to help you do not have the experience, the tools, or the know-how to do it. In fact, many of those who say they are ready to help are actually hurting you.
For example, just because someone had a record deal doesn’t mean that he or she fully understands the industry, though that person will likely be able to give you a wealth of knowledge about that particular record company or that particular arrangement. But that information may not be applicable to you.
Think about how you get your news. Fox has a slant and MSNBC has another slant. By finding a series of reliable, reputable sources and learning their views, including how they differ, you can come to more informed conclusions.
A very common issue with a lot of music business courses and some music consulting firms is that the information you’re getting may be dated. Sure, these people were pros in the field at some point, but just as a lawyer must keep up with laws that constantly change, so must music industry professional stay current. The past couple of years alone have brought major changes in the industry. Does your source know all the latest trends?
When you talk to people, especially if you’re going to pay them, ask lots of questions. What’s their current and past experience? How varied is it? As I mentioned before, who have they worked with and how satisfied were those artists? What were some of the successes and failures of this person you are talking to? Remember, someone who has had nothing but success may have some really good deals and an impressive résumé, but may not have the understanding or problem-solving skills to help you through rough patches. On the other hand, those who have failed as much as they have succeeded will often have a much wider view, which can be incredibly helpful. Watch out for promises; be wary when you’re given guarantees or you’re told how big you’ll be and how far you’ll go.
If It Were Easy ... Everyone Would Be Doing It
By now, you may be thinking something like, “Wow! Is the whole music industry one big house of horrors? Is everybody out to screw me over and take advantage of me?”
Short answer: no. People can and do make it in this business—but it’s not easy. Sure, you’ve spent years practicing, writing songs, and finding places to play. But that’s the fun stuff. That’s all you want to do—what it’s all about, right?
Still in front of you is the marketing, promoting, attention to detail, problem solving, failures, losses, pain, and strife … Damn, I sound like some emo song. But you get the point: It’s challenging—even more so if you are closed-minded or stubborn. I wish it were all about the music. I wish there didn’t have to be any business in the middle of it. I would love it if you didn’t have to deal with the politics and outside issues that take time away from your art, but dealing with those matters is an indispensable part of the equation of your success.
It’s hard as hell. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
The point is to stop looking for the easy way out. It’s going to be challenging. It will take a longer time to do it if you’re doing it the right way, and—you’ll love this—even when you are doing it the right way, it’s still going to be a real bitch.
So, what’s the secret? There isn’t one. The bands you’ve heard about that just magically made it or were seen by the right person and signed, all have their horror stories as well—they’re just not publicized.
One of my inspirations once told me, when I wanted to quit …
“Buck up, Binky; it’s worth it, and it’s a hell of a ride.”
And you know what? ... He was right.
If you want the dream, it’s obtainable, but you have to work your ass off to get it. It means taking stock of the time you spend each day and how effectively you’re spending it.
Small Steps Can Add up to Big Progress
Ask yourself some questions: Can you cut back thirty minutes on your video games to do thirty more minutes of marketing? Can you miss a TV show and spend those thirty minutes practicing? Can you find five minutes here and there to pop up a blog, market your band online, or work on finding a new venue or another band to work with?
Sometimes doing a little each day will get a lot more done over a longer period of time. Consistency with small, daily segments, especially in advertising, marketing, or promotion, can actually be more effective than pulling a one-time all-nighter. Keep doing a little each day—every day—and then when you have days when you have hours to put into a given project, you’ll be even more productive and see continuity as well as growth.
If you haven’t seen progress, analyze what you’re doing and what you aren’t doing, and alter the game plan. I talk to so many musicians who say they’re doing everything they are supposed to be doing, but then when I bring up a laundry list of approaches, they haven’t touched one of them.
Today’s musician has to learn the business side. It’s crucial to have an understanding of marketing, because these days it’s necessary to put in as much time promoting your songs and your band as you do practicing your music. Anything short of this is not going to work. It’s a common misunderstanding that if you get picked up you will have marketing people and promotion people and agents to do all that “busy work” for you.
Don’t take my word for it: go ask any of your favorite artists who have made it in the past forty-plus years about the work and time that it takes beyond playing the music. The truth is that artists have to spend the bulk of their day on the business side of things: from radio and TV interviews to website and magazine interviews and more. Lots of bands have it written in their contracts that they must blog, update photos and videos, and tweet. I’m not trying to say put the music second—no way. In fact, we’re going to spend a lot of time, later in the book, detailing the how, when, and why of making yourself the best musician you can be.
But marketing and promoting bring your audience to the music you’re making. You could have the greatest chops since Stevie Ray, but if nobody hears you—what have you got?
Build a Good Reputation—by Keeping Your Mouth Shut
Artists know the importance of a good reputation with friends, fans, and followers. You want to make sure that from marketing to social media promotion and everywhere in between, your word is good—that you are not just a BS, wannabe, hype machine.
So … Let’s say you’re close to getting booked for this album or that tour, or that you just found out you have a chance to work with a high-profile artist. No doubt, you are dying to share the news, and you want to tell the world. Three simple things to do first:
• Put on the brakes;
• Wait until it’s a lock; and
• Shut up!
Too many people talk too much trash. There are so many wannabes, so many fakes, so many bullshit artists, and so many flat-out liars in the entertainment industry. No matter how excited you are about something big that is in the early stages, too many things can happen to change the outcome—or cancel it altogether. When you talk too soon and those cancellations happen—even if they aren’t your doing—you are the one who looks bad: like the shit talker, the liar. Inevitably, you will be put into a category with people you do not want to be compared to.
I remember one point in my career as a drummer where I was so excited about some things that were coming down the pike: gigs, tours, albums, and what have you. Even though we didn't have social media back then, I wanted to tell everyone everything right after I got off the phone with the agent. Of course, life happens—which includes cancellations and changes. As things changed (and they always do), guess who looked bad for saying things were going to happen that didn't end up happening? Yep, it was me. If a tour was postponed or an album had to be sidelined, it didn't matter whose fault it really was; I was the one who said it, and it didn't happen.
Finally, I wised up and put on the brakes; I shut up and waited until things were secure. As much as I wanted to scream from the mountaintops about certain things, I waited. As a result, I got even better reactions from people and friends when things I talked about really happened.
“It’s ok to say “no.” Would you rather be known as the liar or the honest one? Don’t promise you are going to a show that you aren’t going to. Don’t tell someone you are going to do something you have no intention of doing.
Don't tell someone you will call or be in touch if you have no desire to.
Just be honest. I have been told I am harsh and brash for telling someone I will not listen to his or her demo or that I am not going to stay for his or her set. I am giving them the respect of the truth, which in my book is much better than lying and pretending to be nice, by making a promise that will never happen.
Be real. Be honest. It will put you a step up in this industry.”
With today’s social media, it is even more of a challenge. People get an email or get off the phone, and they immediately post it on their Facebook status. When announcements are made prematurely, it sets you up for failure.
So learn to keep things under your hat. Keep quiet about the A-list artists you are working with until contracts are signed and events are announced—by someone other than you. Your reputation is crucial, especially with so many liars and fakes out there. So stop, keep your mouth shut, and wait until things are locked in.
“I Have Serious Label Interest” and Other Stupid Hype Statements
Believe me, you don’t want to advertise that you’re negotiating with a label, even if it’s true. Label interest is nothing to write home about or brag about on Facebook or Twitter, especially to people you are trying to impress—like potential producers or investors.
Most of the time, when I hear or read the above line, I move on. I’ve heard artists tell me about how they’re signing with Warner Brothers when their contract has nothing to do with Warner or any of its affiliates.
In this world of way too many labels that aren’t working with the right people, it’s better to say nothing until you actually have a deal. It is much more professional to talk only when the deal is signed and finalized. Bite your tongue, hold back, and show the results instead of telling what’s coming. You will stand out over all of those that talk way too much. Instead, impress with your actions.
And for all the people claiming that what they are doing is “going to break through,” “go all the way,” or, my favorite, “revolutionize” this or that: Step the hell up; don't half-ass. Don't oversell what or where you are, especially in today's industry. It is easier now than ever to be found out as a big-talking beginner or a liar. On the other hand, honesty is strength; use it.
Especially these days, with more and more people calling themselves CEOs, presidents, “professional” this or “pro” that, so much of it is just BS. Be honest; tell people you do this part-time, that you are building your business. Be honest about what kind of time commitment you can give to a project; be honest about your connections. Such honesty may actually help you get new connections. People that you are working with may be able to connect you with other people who can help you. But they definitely won’t do that if they catch the scent of bullshit when they’re around you.
Think about it: If you are as hip, hot, together, pro, and on top of everything as you say you are, then why would you need help? The truth is that in this economy, everyone needs help, and it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for it!
Always Ask: “How?”
“How?” It’s one of the best questions you can ask as you’re trying to make your way in the music business. When they are told they are getting this or being promised that by different people in the music industry, musicians and bands that ask “how” are going to find success in music a lot faster in the new music business of today.
Suppose someone is telling you how he or she can do this or that for you if you sign with his agency, her label, this management company or that producer. The very first question you should ask is, “How?” And then you must make them show you the answer.
As I’ve already said, there are a lot of people who will screw you over. There are also those who don’t mean to hurt your career, but with their lack of experience, knowledge, or problem solving skills, they sign artists to flawed contracts and end up hurting their chances. However, whether the mishap is brought about by dishonesty or ignorance, it could have been prevented if the artist had asked how these people would make this work for them. Sure, they have a cool website; maybe they’ve got the money to rent some really nice office space … but how, specifically, are they going to get you to the next level that they’re promising you?
Here are ten of my favorite promises. Are these companies or people …
1. Taking over the music industry?
2. Saving the music business?
3. Changing the entertainment world?
4. Saying, “We’ve got the expertise and knowledge?”
5. Helping artists achieve their dreams?
6. Making bands rich and famous?
7. The next big thing?
8. The most important playas out there?
9. Going to take you to the top?
10. Guaranteeing you “thousands” of hits, friends, likes or listens?
Every time they toss out one of these gems, you have to ask, “How? How? How?” After all, they took the time to produce the hype. Maybe they won’t divulge their super-secret insider knowledge, but they should at least show you a blueprint! Make sure the answers you get are not extensions of the hype from above. Call the references, do the background checks. Ask what is going to be required of you and what is going to be required of them.
Also watch out if one of these “hype” companies tosses a contract in front of you. Many wannabes copy major companies’ contracts word for word, but they don’t have the ability to do for you what a major can do. Thus, the contract they point to so proudly, rather than being a guarantee of services to be rendered, becomes an albatross around your neck. This manager who has given you nothing but talk may own rights to your music for years to come. A major company has the capacity to invest large sums of money into an artist, but you are still bound to this small manager who may not have dumped in a penny. Before you even think about signing a contract, you’ve got to ask “how.”
A perfect example, though outside the music industry, is Stefanie Gordon, who took the picture of the space shuttle launch with her iPhone as her commercial flight passed over the area. She has been complaining that the photo went viral and was sold for profit by Twitter. But she posted it on Twitter, whose terms and conditions state that they have the right to use and sell any image uploaded onto Twitter. So while she did take the photo and it doesn’t seem fair, there’s not much she can do. She failed to ask the right questions at the right time.
Don't be sold on the hype. Ask the questions and demand the details. I have enjoyed a great career, but the biggest mistakes I ever made, the biggest losses I ever took, and the hardest times I ever had involved the times when I didn't ask how. I wanted to believe it so much and wanted it so bad, so I took “how” out of the equation—and suffered the consequences.
Some Warning Signs
When you question the basics, if someone …
• gets hot under the collar;
• starts to stutter;
• suddenly gets much quieter;
• changes the topic;
• cranks out more hype;
• or simply doesn't give you an answer;
you should …
• continue to go after the answers; or
• get as far away as you can from this person or company.
Drive and Dedication: Essentials for Success
Along with everything else we’ve talked about so far—along with your attention to marketing, promotion, and networking, and as you continue to ask the questions, do the research, and fact-check all the details—you must have drive. It must be constant; you cannot give up. You have to maintain it through the periods of your greatest doubt. When things are going slowly, you need to persevere. When things are looking up, you still need to keep that same level of drive. It’s not an option; it’s a requirement if you want to make it in this or any other business.
I’m very proud of format that I’ve set up for a music business plan. With the help of colleagues and through my own life experiences, I’ve outlined a game plan for artists that includes every step, from pre-production and funding to release, marketing, and solicitation. The plan covers it all, except for one part: the drive.
You alone can provide the desire, the determination, the persistence, and the constant attention to detail required to succeed. These are the true core elements to your success. Period.
Drive and determination apply to all the stages of your career—especially when you start to build momentum. In fact, the most common mistakes happen when artists lighten up. They’ve worked really hard to get their dream recording and all the materials in place, and then the “sit back and wait” mentality begins to creep in. What the artists really need to do at that point is to apply the same work ethic to all the other elements.
You can succeed. You don’t need some self-help, inspirational book or DVD. You just need what’s inside you, remembering how badly you want it. When you were little and you learned to walk, you didn’t suddenly jump out of the crib and walk. You stumbled, made mistakes, grew stronger, and learned what worked. Each day you got a little farther. You were able to do things you weren’t able to do the day before, and you were proud of your achievements.
In the same way, persistence and ongoing effort can define and enable your success. Take the drive that’s inside you and apply it. Get out of your comfort zone. Push yourself.
If you do this, you will succeed.
Believe in Yourself
Believing in yourself is what fuels your drive. I mean, face it: not everyone is going to love you or your music. There is nothing you can do about that, so don’t waste any effort on attempting to change this fact. Instead, apply your energy in positive efforts toward success.
Many musicians and bands tend to have sensitive personalities. This quality can help the art, but oversensitivity to others’ opinions or judgments—even when they are unfair—can hurt more than help. I have been criticized throughout my career, and while I like to think I am good at taking criticism and growing from it, I have also found myself offended at times. While I am usually the first to speak my mind about a harsh attack on my playing as a drummer, my albums as a music producer, my writing as an author, or my approaches as a music consultant, I usually choose not to defend. If I need to defend against an attack, I probably do not want to work with that person, anyway.
To me, this is not a passive approach. If someone has questions or has a point of view that is different and they want to talk about it, I am more than open to do so. However, when someone rips into a blog, tells me I played terrible drums on a track, or says my writing is stupid, I just let it be. The person has made a decision; who am I to change his or her mind? Why put effort into trying to change the mind of someone who has already set boundaries?
I have seen artists get into screaming matches in person and online, often igniting a flame war. My opinion is that if you are exerting that much negative energy—putting up a Facebook page about how much a particular band sucks, for example—then you really need to examine your messed-up, delusional time management choices and shift to something a little better for your life.
Not everyone is going to love you—and that is okay. Grow your skin a little thicker. Remember, any press can be good press. When someone rips you a new one, keep that review on your home page. Hell, have two sections: one with smiley-face reviews and another with sad-face reviews. It shows character and a sense of humor. You’re proving that your ego is healthy enough to take criticism or compliments and learn from both.
You have to learn to take it. You have to learn to brush off negative reactions to your music but also see when it might actually be constructive criticism or have a seed of actual honesty. When we hear bad things about ourselves, the natural reaction is to go on the defensive. But take a step back and take a breath. Before you go on a counteroffensive, take a look at what has been said or written and see if it is something you should consider.
On the other hand, there are people who are just going to be brutal. They are going to tear into you, and really, do the reasons matter? Why justify it as jealousy or a personal grudge? Who cares why they do it? Let go of it.
I re-launched my blog in January of 2012 (http://musicconsultantandmusiccoachblog.blogspot.com) with written and video blogs. Without a doubt, my opinions are different from others, but I don’t think I’ve ever been completely off-base in any of the articles I’ve produced. Nevertheless, I’ve received scathing comments both publicly and privately. I’ve been called a hack, a scam artist, and worse. Hell, one guy says my writing pisses him off more and more each week. (Note to this guy: Stop reading.) But for all the rude comments, I get many more that are kind and wonderfully supportive, so I keep on trucking. It can hurt sometimes, but it’s better just to let the bad go.
Don’t get into the habit of responding to negative, attacking people. Responding to genuine questions is one thing, but if someone says you suck, your song sucks, your picture sucks, or whatever—let it be.
Every time I have responded to someone being negative, the person has only become more of a jerk. I knew a guy who said it this way: “You can’t win a puking contest with a buzzard.” Instead, have the courage to be positive and the desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself.
And though I hate to say it, the unreasoning attacks may only get worse as you gain popularity. The more reads I get on my blog, the more kind comments have come my way, but at the same time, the number of rude and harsh ones has jumped as well. The more you play out, the more you are heard, the more you get your music, your writings, your image, and yourself out there, the more people there will be to tear you a new one.
My advice is to take it with a grain of salt—and maybe a shot of tequila; let it roll off your back. Move forward in confidence and assertiveness and create what you want to create. Don’t waste the time trying to turn a hater into a supporter. Spend your time going after as many people as you can to build a strong fan base that supports you. Stay sensitive to your art, but become less sensitive to criticism, or it will eat you alive. If you can’t handle the scrutiny, you are going to have a rough go in any art- or entertainment-related business.
Aaron Sorkin said it best when he wrote this: “Living where there’s free speech means sometimes you’re going to get offended.” Putting time, energy, and effort into counterattacking your critics, giving rebuttals to bad reviews, or arguing with people who don’t like you or your music are all a big waste of time.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand by your art. In my experience, though, people who truly believe in themselves are able to take negative reviews in stride. I think it’s because they know who they are and where they are going; they don’t allow the trash-talking to alter their focus. They also don’t have to resort to spouting hype or BS.
So, when you talk to someone—whether a manager, a venue owner, a band member, a potential label, or whomever—believe in yourself and talk straight. Sure, you can be assertive. You don’t have to be an asshole, but you can be confident and stand by your opinion. Be open to hearing someone else’s thoughts, but step up and stand up when you need to. If you need to say no, say no. If you need to say stop, say stop. If you need to address an issue, then bring it up.
“If your opinions, beliefs, and thoughts stand strong—regardless of who you are in front of or who is asking for them—they not only showcase your honor, your consistency, and your views, but they also make it easier to not worry about changing your story for this person or that person.
As a whole, this attitude creates a trust and sense of truth that many lack in the music business or, for that matter, any business. If you feel that you have to alter your opinions and beliefs depending on which audience you are in front of, maybe you should keep them to yourself.”
By the same token, if something isn’t working, don’t keep doing it over and over and over again. Remember, the definition of dysfunction is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. People who believe in themselves aren’t afraid to re-examine an approach when necessary. Have enough self-confidence to take stock of where you are. Have you been playing the same room to the same size crowd for over a year? That’s not forward motion. Take the problem-solving approach to continue to progress in all aspects of your career. Where can you look for new fans, and how can you find new markets in which to sell?
It takes an assertive set of ideals to be truly successful, and it takes humility to realize when things have to change. To be humble and assertive at the same time requires that you believe in yourself. Artists who believe in themselves—those who persevere, without the need for hype or for somebody to be constantly telling them how great they are—find the path to success.
Are You a Good Investment?
I still run across a lot of artists with the mindset—or maybe it should be called a pipe dream—that as soon as the right person hears them, they’ll win the big record deal and move onward and upward to million-dollar success, fame, and fortune. More often than not, these same artists have invested very little time, energy, or money in the demos they’re sending out in order to get heard by “the right person.” They seem to persist in believing that their inexpensive (and usually inexpertly produced) demos will showcase their amazing ability and make labels and investors want to lay down tons of cash.
I try to point out to these folks that the realities of today’s music business are working against them. At a time when labels are going bankrupt or pursuing marriages of convenience, there are fewer investments more risky than backing an unknown musical act. So you need to ask yourself: why are you worth a label’s cash?
Tens of thousands of bands, all filled with delusions of grandeur, are out there soliciting labels with substandard demos, no marketing, no promotion plan, and piss-poor organization. These artists seem to hold the expectation that their raw talent (“raw” being the operative word) justifies the label’s investment. Ironically, those very few who actually get the label’s money and services are often the same ones who later get pissy about having to pay back all the money with the percentage and can’t seem to understand why it’s taking so long for them to see any profit.
The fact is that it’s no longer about finding a label that will support and stand by you with a large investment; it’s about convincing a label, an agent, or an investor that you are worth the money.
First off, don’t try to shop half-assed demos or poorly recorded songs. You may be showcasing your song and your talent, but you’re also showcasing that it’s going to take a greater investment to record the music the right way. Studio time is a major expense: the engineer, the producer, the food, rental gear, travel, lodging, and so on. A studio recording is fraught with risk for a label; it requires money for a project that may never be released, giving it a zero percent chance of recouping the investment. So why should they take a chance?
On the other hand, if you come to a record label with an industry-standard recording, you reduce the need for funding—which, in turn, reduces the label’s hesitancy. Do your homework: find the right studio with the right engineer and the right producer. Record the album with the goal of submitting not a demo, but a finished product that’s ready for the industry. Don’t shortcut; if it takes a little longer to get together the money to record it the right way, then take the time. Apply that same care to the mix and the mastering. Do everything you can to make it the best product possible.
When you take this type of package to a label, you’re going to leapfrog many other artists and their half-assed demos, because you have something that’s going to save the label money on the front end and allow them to start making money sooner on the back end.
Similarly, if you have in place your logo, your branding, your image, and all the secondary elements of your marketing and promotion, it makes you all the more appealing to labels, managers, and agents. If you have worked to create a complete, professional press package in which everything is uniform in appearance and content, with a sharp, professional presentation, you have again saved the label money and brought them closer to making profit from you and with you.
In other words, always ask yourself: How am I helping the label?
I see so many bands that don’t have the right product or high-quality recordings. They don’t have a font, a logo, or the tools to brand themselves. They lack tight bios, stage plots, and other artist contract materials. They don’t have a strong fan base or much, if any, Web presence. These are all things that are absolutely necessary for the successful launch of a group that’s looking to make money. If you don’t have these elements in place, you’re going to need money, time, and a development period to get them to where they need to be. These days, if you’re expecting a label to invest money and time in you, you are probably mistaken.
Why not make it as easy as possible for a label to distribute you, to put you on the road and to move your product and merchandise? In this way, you are less of a risk in a business that’s taking fewer and fewer risks every day. If you want representation or to be signed, get your product and packaging up to par and beyond. Then you can go to the managers, the labels, and the agents with the type of professional package that will make it fast and easy for them to get you out to the world.
“The Big, Bad World Doesn’t Owe You a Thing”
This is one of the truest lines Don Henley ever sang, but people seem to have a hard time believing it. To prove this to yourself, go to any musician’s hangout—a practice building, a bar, a venue, or a music store—and you’ll eventually hear a rant about the music industry. People will inevitably start to talk about why they aren’t where they want to be. The venues, labels, the booking agents, or somebody else in the industry has messed up their career.
I hope, if you’ve read this far, that you realize the truth: you can fault the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), you can fault managers for shady deals, you can curse agents for screwing you over, you can whine about publishing companies for not getting you your royalties, or you can even trash-talk the big names for taking away your deserved popularity—all of it is completely useless.
Complaining is a negative thing that gets you nowhere. On the other hand, actions beget actions. The ones who bitch the most are the ones who will often stay in this pathetic holding pattern and go nowhere. These are the people who feel they deserve something from the music industry and are waiting for it to come up and knock on their door.
Just like the big, bad world, the music industry doesn’t owe you anything; it was here long before you were. You want success? You want opportunity? You want to make money? Then make it happen through actions, not bitching.
I’ve been a part of numerous tours, recordings, bands, sessions, substitutions, and productions. I’ve cried, I’ve practically killed myself from exhaustion and overworking, and I’ve had the time of my life. I love music; I love what I do and do what I love.
At the same time, I accept that there is a terrible and very broken aspect to things. I’ve wanted to quit, but I couldn’t. I know what it’s like to live the five-star tours just as I know what it’s like to be shoved into a very small van with five very large people for a very long time … and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. I’ve made a great deal of money and lost a fortune as well. I’ve played for thousands upon thousands and played for a single pissed-off bartender who wanted us just to go home. It’s been a spectrum of love and hate, anger and joy, frustration and pure fun. I will say it again: I love what I do and do what I love—regardless of the pain I’ve felt at times. I accept the pain to get a chance at the joy I have received.
It’s true that some labels do sign artists to awful deals. Some managers do rip off artists. Some publishers do take far too much from artists. Some producers do wrong by their clients, and some booking agents do take advantage of bands. But there are also labels, managers, agents, and bookers that are doing it right and taking care of artists. These are the people who take action and move things forward instead of putting out a stagnant, go-nowhere attitude.
Make a difference; educate yourself. Read the contracts that you get and have a professional read them as well. Advocate change by effecting change. No single one of us can change the industry, but each of us can take small steps that can amount to big ones. It’s okay to be pissed off with how elements of the music industry treat musicians, but if you harness that energy into positive actions, you will create positive reactions.
Well, I never got that double-bass Pearl kit I drew in Mr. Cepeck’s science class. Actually, later on in my career, I got to sit down on one of them. I thought it sounded terrible. It was a loud, heavy, gigantic kit made for arenas. I never got to play that kit in arenas, but I got to play some arenas. I got to play some small rooms, theaters, festivals, and venues of all shapes and sizes. In other words, I got to see my dream become reality—but it was a different, more realistic dream than the one I had in the eighth grade.
I never became Jon Farris of INXS, but I was a successful session, sub, touring, and ghost drummer. I never delivered master classes like Steve Gadd, but I taught and conducted my share of drum clinics. Though my success did not reach the financial levels of guys like Gadd, Farris, and many others, I did match one level with them both: like them, I was successful.
Of course, my definition of success changed as my career developed in the music industry. I got a better understanding of what I wanted, what mountains I wanted to climb, and how to prepare for each ascent so that, regardless of whether I reached the summit or just got to a few of the stops along the trail, I was still able to achieve, succeed, and flourish.
When it comes to the music industry and you, planning for the realistic goals while still moving toward the “peak” levels is the best path anyone can follow. When you prepare yourself in this way, you have that many more chances of WINNING.