10 Tips Even the Most Naďve Musicians Should Know
by Christopher Knab ,
Back to The Academy
I had a call today from a young musician who was seeking advice about a 6 song demo tape he and his band had put together. He had plans to ‘shop it around’ to some labels to see if he could get a recording contract. He was a very polite guy, and wanted me to be very honest with him about what his band should do with their demo. The more we talked the more I realized how clueless he was. When the call was over, I couldn’t get it him out of my mind. How could he be so clueless in this day and age? What closet was this band living in, thinking that a demo tape of 6 songs was all he needed to get a ‘deal’.
I get upset when I encounter naivete, or blissful ignorance…it pisses me off.
On the one hand we have a slew of entrepreneurial bands around these days that are very hip to using traditional and non-traditional marketing tactics to get their careers launched. Many bands are out their playing live as much as possible, using the web to get their music circulated and sold, These bands are working hard day and night to get their music into the marketplace, and they realize that the business of music is a ruthless business that demands as much from you as you are willing to give it, with no guarantees of any success coming your way.
And then there are the clueless, the naďve, and the blissfully ignorant. “Why won’t they just go away?” I ask myself. Because regretfully, “ignorance is bliss” is still a permanent state of mind for many aspiring musicians. These idiots will never go away regardless of the dozens of outstanding books, articles, regional and national music conferences, and webinars that are out there spreading the gospel of ‘do-it-yourself’.
It is one thing to be naďve, and another thing to voluntarily remain ignorant of music business realities. But wait, why should I complain?
I am a music business consultant. I should be happy that there are so many clueless musicians out there. They could become my next client. But they won’t because they have no desire to educate themselves. Even when I tell them they can get a lot of free information at my web site, they won’t even go there and read the free articles because… they are too lazy. So, what’s a music business consultant to do?
Will I surrender to the clueless? Will I let the naďve get to me? Will I stop my crusade to help musicians with the business of music?
So, to prove it…here are a bunch of FREE TIPS for the taking:
1. Learn how to write a song!
We live in a time when everybody and their sister can and does make their own music.
That doesn’t mean however that your music has what it takes for record labels to invest their money and time developing, promoting, and marketing that music. A&R Reps are always saying, when asked what they are looking for, “We don’t know what we are looking for, but we’ll recognize it when we hear it.” What we can read into their comment is that your music must truly stand out in some significant, original, dynamic, and creative way. 95% of the original music out there contains regurgitated ideas that were ripped off from some other more gifted musicians. Challenge yourself! Talent scouts in this business hear hundreds of mediocre songs every week. What is it about your songs that make them stand out from all the rest?
2. Play live as often as you can.
You can always tell the difference between a musician who is in it for the money, and a musician who is in it for the music. The dedicated musician/band MUST play live every chance they get. Money-focused musicians whine about the fact that they can’t get club gigs that pay anything. If you really think that you can make your living solely as a musician in the first three to four years of your career, you are headed for a breakdown and disappointment. Think about it...almost every legendary musician who has made a mark on our culture has been a musician who struggled long and hard at their craft, and never stopped playing live.
Eat determination for breakfast! Go out there and play on the streets if you have to, play at schools, fairs, festivals, do benefits to help other people and organizations. Offer your services to non- profits, charities, church groups, and any other companies or organizations you can think of. Hang out at clubs, look for jamming possibilities, or start your own jam sessions. Look around where you live and you will see many places and venues where musicians can play. As you establish yourself and more and more people show up at your shows, the paid gigs will increase. Remember... play live, and then after you play live, play live again, that’s what musicians are supposed to do.
3. Never stop practicing your instrument.
One of the curious developments of the late 70’s was the huge increase in garage bands, punk bands, and ‘do-it yourselfers’, who just picked up an instrument, or started to sing with some friends, and 6 months later recorded a record and began to play live. Some great music, and new directions in music, came out of that situation. But now, 30 odd years later, the novelty of hearing amateurish thrashings has gotten a bit dull.
Prior to late 70’s, more often than not, the music that is our heritage was made by musicians who, from the time they took up their instrument, worshipped at the feet of some master bluesman, jazz player, folk legend, songwriter, or whatever. The habit of these inspired musicians was an appetite for perfection, the need to be not just 'good enough', but GREAT.
Why settle for less? Whatever developing stage you are at, go beyond it, re-commit yourself to your instrument or voice. Take lessons, or better yet, sit yourself down at your CD player and choose a favorite guitar player’s record, and listen closely to what they are playing. Then re-play it, and re-play it again. Challenge yourself to go beyond your limitations. Who knows, maybe you will discover some new territory, wherein you will find your ‘sound’, and increase your chance to stand out from all the mediocrity that is your competition. Believe it or not, record labels love to hear innovative, accessible new sounds. Actually in their heart of hearts, that is what they are really hoping to hear on every new demo music file or CD, and from every new act they go see at a live venue.
In the business of music, when we hear something new, original, and accessible to people, we can then invest in you with more security, believing that if we put our ‘label brand’ on you, with our talents of promotion and marketing coming to the front, then we ‘have something’, and your music becomes our music, and we work together to broaden you audience appeal. It’s kind of like a partnership between ‘Art and Commerce’. They can work together!
4. Cough up the bucks to register your songs with the Copyright Office.
I never cease to be amazed how few artists are willing to spend $35 to register their copyrighted songs online with the U.S. Copyright Office. www.copyright.gov
By the way, these folks are often the same folks who complain about not getting paid to perform their unknown music. All I know is that when an inventor comes up with some new product that they think will appeal to a certain type of customer, the first thing they do is file for a patent on their invention. The same reaction to protecting songs should be there for any serious songwriter. If you really intend to work hard and develop your career as a musician who writes your own songs, don’t wait too long to take care of this simple, but essential task. If you really believe in your unique and original music then take the time to learn the basics of copyright protection. With the Internet or your neighborhood library and/or bookstore there a number of easy ways to learn what it takes to file for copyright protection. Do it now!
5. Design some decent looking promotional materials.
The topic of designing and writing effective promotional materials; bios, fact sheets, cover letters, photos, and quote sheets is a lengthy one to say the least. My tip to help musicians promote their careers, and contribute to their getting any deal offers, is to make the promo materials as compelling, and informative as possible. Take an inventory of your accomplishments, positive reviews, past sales, and live appearance highlights, and organize them into professionally written bios etc. Having done that, time also needs to be taken to research who to send the materials to, and to ask each potential recipient what type of information they would like to have sent to them. No ‘generic’ kits should ever be sent out to any gatekeepers in the music business. Most gatekeepers in the industry today will want you to send any requested materials via email attachments. Be sure though to ask them what they prefer; email attachments or snail mail goodies.
6. Get acquainted with any labels or publishing companies you may be interested in.
If you were applying for a job with a certain company of corporation, wouldn’t you take some time to ask questions about their stability as a business, their reputation in the industry, and their background and experience? The same is true when shopping for a record deal.
(If you insist on this approach, and if my emails are a good source of information, thousands of you still insist on shopping for deals instead of building your career to attract the businesses you want to work with)
Some musicians get so excited when a certain label approaches them with a recording contract, or a publishing company offers to sign them. Well, what can I say…go ahead and sign some damn deal…you will be writing me back after you experiences with that approach and asking me for help, but it will be too late by then…sorry suckers!
At least take the time to learn a few things about contracts before you go looking for one. Research the companies who may contact you. How have they done with your particular genre of music? What specific ‘points’ are they offering you? Who runs the label or publishing company? What is their reputation in the music business? How do you like them as people? These and other questions can be crucial in making an unemotional decision about an arrangement that could make or break your career.
7. Don’t use just any attorney for legal advice…find an entertainment law attorney.
The business of getting signed to any deal in the music business has always had, has now, and will always have, the involvement of entertainment law attorneys. No jokes will be inserted here, because any relationship between a musician, a record label, a publisher, a merchandiser etc. will come down to two attorneys hashing out the contract for the musician and the respective companies. It should be pointed out here that when all is said in done with the ‘courting’ process, the musician is never present during the actual negotiations. The musician’s attorney and the music company’s attorney meet, talk over the phone, and fax, email, even text message their offers and counter-offers amongst themselves. This fact serves to remind you that choosing a reputable, ethical, well respected attorney with lots of deal making experience within the music industry is an absolute necessity for any serious musician who wishes to fight the good fight in the legal arena.
8. Learn what managers do by doing management for yourself.
Self management is always a valid option in the developing stages of establishing your career as a musician. Much can be learned by taking on the jobs of securing gigs, getting some publicity, planning tours, dealing with personal issues that arise within the band, and schmoozing with A&R Reps and various other label and publishing personnel.
However, there comes a time, usually when the daily tasks of doing the business of being a band takes up too much time, and it is at this time that the services of a good manager can be very useful. I have always felt that if any musician or band has worked hard to establish their career, and achieved a modicum of success, they will have a better chance to ‘attract’ the services of a professional, well-connected and respected manager.
Today, finding a Manager is very difficult. Managers who do this job for a living can only take on clients that generate income. Making money as a personal manager is no easy task, and many upcoming artists forget that if any moneys are to be generated from their music, it can takes years for the flow of that income to be reliably there. So, as a band develops self-management, or gets help from intern/student managers, the road that heads toward professional management may open up.
Over the years I have heard several horror stories about 'managers’ that approach upcoming acts and say that for X amount of dollars, they can do such and such for the artist. No, this is not the way legit personal manager’s work. Well-connected and respected personal managers get paid a negotiated fee for their services (get it in writing) for any and all business transactions they are responsible for (15%-25%) over a particular contract period. No musicians should ever pay a fee to a so-called ‘manager’ who will not do any work UNLESS they are paid up front. Flim Flam men and women still abound in this business... be forewarned.
One of the most important jobs of a manager is to secure recording and publishing contracts for their clients, this is why it is so essential to choose well connected and well respected managers. The music business is a ‘relationship’ business. Who knows whom, and who can get to the gatekeepers, and who did what successfully, is what this management game is all about. Choose carefully the people who will be representing you in any business dealings.
9. Take advice only from people who have talked the talk and walked the walk.
Everybody has their own list of Do’s and Don’ts and the only real value they have is that they present you with ‘opinions’ about what to do to get established as a musician.
To be quite candid, the best rules in the music business comes from the experience of building your own career; learning from your own interactions with the gatekeepers at labels, the media, management, and booking companies as to what is right or wrong for you. For every Do or Don’t there is an exception to a so-called ‘rule’. As I reflect on the advice I received and listened to over the years, the most valid tips came from people who walked the walk, and talked the talk. If you feel that the source you have contacted knows what they are talking about, and has had first hand experience doing what you want to learn about, that is the only feedback that might stand up over time. Choose carefully.
10. Educate Yourself! Learn something about the business of music.
Ignorant, ill-informed musicians are a menace to themselves. Over the decades there have been countless stories of musicians who were ripped off by their record labels and music publishing companies. Why? Exploitation was the name of the game, and still is when it comes to money issues. In the past, keeping musicians in the dark was standard business practice. However, the past has passed. Today, musicians who signs a record contract, and learns later about the bad news contained in it, have only themselves to blame.
There are dozens of outstanding books available on every conceivable topic related to the business of music. They can be found in bookstores, libraries, and through the Internet. In addition, there are many schools that now offer 2- 4 year programs on the business of music. Seminars and workshops are available on a year round basis in most major American cities. It is only myth, superstition, stubbornness, and immaturity that stand in the way of any musician making a commitment to educating themselves about the business of music.
There ya go! Now please…keep this information close at hand and commit to learning as much as you can about a business that thrives on exploiting naďve or the blissfully ignorant musicians.
Christopher Knab is an independent music business consultant based in Seattle, Washington. He
is available for private consultations on promoting and marketing independent music, and can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Knab's book, 'Music Is Your Business'
is available from the Music Biz Academy bookstore.
Visit the FourFront Media and
Music website for more information on the business of music from