It Starts with You

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? Here are some road signs that that might point to contracts in the near future:

The band’s earnings reach a point where it is likely or inevitable that the band or its members will start receiving IRS Form 1099 forms from an agent, venue or other outside third party or, more often, the band member that the checks are made out to. Cash “under the table” will only go so far in this business[em]although the life blood of bottom feeders, eventually you will start dealing with other professionals[em]professionals that want tax write offs and good paper trails of where their money goes. Here’s an example:

The Today Tones, a cover band, have a 1-year contract with a hotel chain to play the lounge five nights a week for a year. Regardless of whether the contract came from the hotel or its agent, someone will have to sign for the band. This will also be the person who receives the weekly check from the hotel. Imagine the hotel pays the band $2,000 a week. That makes the weekly payroll from the leader of the four piece band to the three other band members $1,500 a week if all share equally. By year’s end, the band leader has received over $100,000 and shelled out more than $75,000 to the other members. Unless he is very wealthy he will pass on to the IRS that he has paid this in the form of 1099s.

At this point there is a “leader,” a paper trail of booking agreements and a financial trail for the band’s activities. If the band is sticking it out long term, this might be the time for a band meeting regarding formalizing the relationship.
A business formation band meeting is in order and might produce something like this:

  • The band members are all equal members in the band, its name and business – all decisions will be made by the band. If a majority of the band can’t agree on an issue, the issue is taken off the table. Example: If three of the four members of a gig don’t want to do a specific gig, the band doesn’t take it.
  • The band members all own their own equipment each member is responsible for their gear.
  •  Band members who bring more than just their instruments into play, PA systems, vans, trucks and project recording studios come to mind, get compensated at an amount agreed to by the other band members. Example: Jim owns the PA system and van and has to get to the gig before and stay long after the other band members to setup. Jim gets an extra $50 each gig and gas money for any trips out of the area.
  • A band member can leave at anytime, take their toys and go home. The exiting member has no future interest in the band.
  • All band members share equally in the net revenue. After gas, PA, agent or other fees, the band members split the money equally.
  • Any expenses over a certain amount, say $250, has to be approved by a majority of the band.

Let’s look at another scenario[em]the ensemble that is pulled together by the front person who is choosing the repertoire, booking the gigs and taking care of everything else. The front man is the boss and the members of the band are there at his or her pleasure. There are legalities from both sides of the band under this scenario too. A venue would be a buyer, the band leader or agent would be the contractor, and the band members would be sub-contractors. A front person, the one with the gigs, might have a simple agreement with band members that would address the following issues:

  • The band, its name, network and all other assets are the property of the band leader. All decisions, artistic and business, are made by the by the band leader.
  • The band member is an independent contractor working at the pleasure of the band leader. The relationship is and shall be, “at will.”
  • All recordings, video, film and still photography are owned by the band leader. All of the band member’s work and contributions to the leader are on a “work-for-hire” basis and the member will receive no further compensation.
  • The band member will give the leader their legal name, social security number and permanent address for tax and accounting purposes.
  • The band member owns and is responsible for his or her equipment.
  • The band member can be terminated at any time for any or no reason.

Again, this is a document that could cover less than one page and could double as the new band member’s fact sheet. In some cases an artist will build a career with a hot and loyal band as a major component of the product and will make concessions to the band members to keep their loyalty and enthusiasm. An example is where the band leader may get all the record, sponsorship and writing royalties but will put the band members on a generous year-round salary, pay them a larger cut when performing live or a combination of both. We will be taking a look at situations like that as we get further down the career path.

What is the Product?

Focus on what it is you are selling. It could be your talents as a bass player, your skill at a mixer, your songs and voice or a combination of some or all of these aspects. A singer-songwriter’s mission statement might be something like, “I want to put my songs, vision and voice in front of as many people as possible while making a decent living.” Whatever your skill or talent, look at it as the product. It can be distasteful to some artists to have to package themselves into a product that is attractive and compelling to the public. Some musicians think their talent will carry all the weight. All the talent in the world won’t help you if nobody knows you exist and the only way to get that visibility is marketing. From your “band members needed” announcement on the bulletin board of the local music store to selling your act to a band leader or club your job only gets easier when the product and price are clearly defined. Every musician, engineer, producer or other music pro are all small businesses. There are questions that every small business has to ask itself:

  • Who else is selling similar products?
  • How much are they getting for the product?
  • Who is buying the product and how would I get to them?

These questions are as important to a guitar player starting out as any other new business. If you don’t have the chops of the other players in the area and charge $100 a night more, you will probably be spending most of your nights at home. Like it or not you and your music are now products and must be competitive with other similar products to get anywhere. It is not enough that you believe in the product[em]you already bought it – you have to convince others. Doing your homework is the best way to formulate a plan. Early on, before you have established a reputation that puts you ahead of the pack, you will be getting a market rate for your services. Learn what has and hasn’t worked for other artists in the region. Products also have legal ramifications and descriptions and even liabilities.

The Image
Many entertainers don’t think about their image but some have to. Major pop stars find a lot of money in marketing their image to third parties. The licensing to manufacturers of pop star action figures, posters, t-shirts and other artist memorabilia can make up a significant portion of overall earnings. In many cases the artist’s image is the driving force behind such merchandising. A super hottie pop star’s bikini poster may be a hot seller – as long as the artist still looks hot, and some artists may spend a lot of time keeping that image. An artist’s image is everything in the public venue and many artists are very concerned about how their image is marketed. They don’t want bad photos circulating and may prohibit cameras at their concert appearances. Keeping a tight rein on product branding and image is a very important part of any campaign for wide public recognition and acceptance.
Some of the rights you may be negotiating will be specific to image- particularly video, film and still photography. Your image may be a main component of your product so it is something always worth considering.

The casual weekend warrior may never have a need for any legality in their performance career. The warrior might have a day job and is only performing for the love of music and a little beer money. The band mates might all feel the same way. At the end of the night they split the money and go home. The entire arrangement is casual and friendly and aspirations are not that high. On the other hand there are emerging bands that are dead serious about the business, their exposure and careers. Let’s move on to a more comprehensive view and see how deep the rabbit hole can go without ever leaving the garage.