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Click to email ChrisDo You Believe What You've Heard About How the Music Business Operates?
by Christopher Knab
Fourfront Media & Music
- March 2010

Back to Music Business 101

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 in keywords like "music business","record labels", "music distribution", or just about any topic you want to know about... it's 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 donít 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.

But most misguided beliefs exist because weíre exposed to a never ending flow of music. Itís on radio twenty-four hours a day. Television music channels show videos 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.

Try out this exercise and make it a new habitÖ look at all the non-stop entertainment thatís 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 CD get reviewed and another doesnít, what factors determine who got the opening act gig on the superstar summer tour? How did that actís website get so much attention? Itís 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 ó it couldnít have been seven years in the making. Yeah, right.

Now let me show you some amazing statements Iíve 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 theyíre hurting themselves by not knowing the business truths of the recording industry.

Here are some misconceptions I keep running across. Iíve heard these over and over.

"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. Theyíre rich!"

"Labels have to give you money to tour, man. Itís 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 youíre 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 Iíve heard and read from naive musicians, and really thereís no excuse for such ignorance. Look at it this way; as a musician, youíve 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 arenít books, consultations, workshops, seminars, conferences, or music trade magazine subscriptions as necessary to you as your other music related expenses?

Check out this factÖ 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. Thatís what the School of Hard Knocks is all aboutÖ 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 youíre 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 ó wouldnít they have wanted to know what they know now? Wouldnít 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 youíre not sure about something. Donít believe rumors. Learn from reliable sources because ignorance is not bliss. Itís important to educate yourself. (Just donít go to the other extreme and become an information addict who never gets any real work done. Iíve met some folks like that, and wellÖdonít get me started!) 

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