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Click to email ChrisDo You Believe Everything You Hear About How the Music Business Operates?
by Christopher Knab , March 2010

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The history of the music business is filled with stories of musicians being misled or exploited by record labels, managers, attorneys, and other characters. Until the early 1980s, it was difficult to find information about record label contracts, marketing strategies, publishing issues, or anything else about the inner workings of the industry.

That was then, and this is now. Today, musicians who want to learn about the business of music can find dozens of books covering every aspect of it. The Internet also has many wonderful sites to help musicians find their way around the slippery world of the music business. Just type keywords into Google like 'music business','record labels', 'music distribution', or just about any topic you want to know about... it is amazing how much free information is out there. Of course, just because its on the Internet doesn't mean the information you find is accurate...you have to learn/research who is saying what about the topic you are researching.

So why do I still meet and get e-mail from so many musicians who don’t have a clue that there are more letters in the word “business” than in the word “music”? Once again, I think so much ignorance still exists because of the power of celebrity, the thirst for success, and the escapist fun and honest fulfillment that comes with making music.

Most misguided beliefs exist because we’re exposed to a never ending flow of music. It’s in front of us 24/7. We see countless video filled with exciting, escapist images. The media interviews your favorite musicians with questions that are as deep as the shallow end of a wading pool. Reviewers write articles about the latest releases and treat musicians like gods or devils, depending on the bias of the writer.

Look at all the non-stop entertainment that’s coming at you constantly, and see it for what it really is.

Ask yourself questions! How did that song get on the radio? Who chooses what gets on the music channels? Why does one album get reviewed and another doesn’t? What factors determine who got the opening act gig on the superstar summer tour? How did that act’s website get so much attention? It’s no surprise that would-be stars see only what has succeeded, but rarely understand the inner workings of the business. So, it looks easy. Anyone can do it. That overnight sensation really did happen overnight—it couldn’t have been seven years in the making. Yeah, right.

Now let me show you some amazing statements I’ve come across over the years that show how ignorant most musicians and band members can be. They hear some things and believe them on faith, when in fact they’re hurting themselves by not knowing the business truths of the recording industry. Here are a few misconceptions I hear over and over again:

    “Copyrights? All you have to do is mail yourself a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your lyrics inside and a court of law will accept that as proof of copyright ownership.”

    “Man, this band I know just got two million dollars for signing with a major label. They’re rich!”

    “Labels have to give you money to tour, man. It’s in every contract.”

    "Recoup? That just means you have to pay a label back only for what it cost them to make your record.”

    “Hey, if your band breaks up, you can just leave and go sign with somebody else.”

    “Once you’re signed to a label, they have to put your record out, or pay you a lot of money to break the contract.”

The false statements above are just a small sample of the sad things I’ve heard and read from naive musicians, and really there’s no excuse for such ignorance. (You’ll find the real answers to these misconceptions in my book, by the way.) Look at it this way; as a musician, you’ve invested thousands of dollars in instruments and equipment. You may have paid for lessons and spent money on recording and manufacturing demos. Why not invest in learning about the business of music? Why aren’t books, consultations, workshops, seminars, conferences, or music trade magazine subscriptions as necessary to you as your other music related expenses?  

The men and women who run the music business got to where they are today because they asked questions and got the answers they needed as they worked their way through their various jobs They learned what they know by attending a different kind of school than the one you may have attended; the School of Hard Knocks. The people who own the labels, record the music, publish the songs, and promote and sell music learned the business by living it. They may have gotten burned in some early deals and lost money along the way, but they took those life lessons to heart and tried not to make the same mistakes again. That’s what the School of Hard Knocks is all about…diving into the business, learning as much as you can as you grow along the way, and never forgetting the lessons you learned.

The main reason musicians were exploited in the past was because the industry kept the secrets of the business to themselves. Well, the secrets have been out for a long time now. The only reason you may have naive ideas and misguided beliefs is because you never had a music business education. Today there are many ways for musicians to educate themselves. There are music business degrees given by universities. There are countless conventions, conferences, and workshops for anyone wanting to learn the ropes. If you want to know the truth about recording contracts, publishing deals, management contracts, or anything else, take the time to learn more about the business you are a part of.

What if you start your own label and just guess what you’re supposed to do? In the past, many successful professionals who helped develop our great musical heritage did just that. But ask them if they had it to do it over—wouldn’t they have wanted to know what they know now? Wouldn’t they love to have back the money they spent foolishly, the contracts they signed ignorantly, and the deals they made without the proper information? You bet they would.

Get curious. Ask questions when you’re not sure about something. Don’t believe rumors. Learn from reliable sources because ignorance is not bliss. It’s important to educate yourself. (Just don’t go to the other extreme and become an information addict who never gets any real work done. I’ve met some folks like that, and well…don’t get me started!)


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: chris@chrisknab.net

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 Christopher Knab.

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