Business - Part One

Business is a topic most musicians and artists, really don't deal with much. I'm not really sure why, but in my own case it is because I tend to focus more on the creative process, my art and music projects than on the business aspect of what I do for a living. As a result, if I don't pay attention to the requirements which come as a byproduct of being a working musician and artist, that I have to understand my value in dollars and cents - what my time is actually worth (not my perception of what I think it's worth), I will make poor decisions from a business perspective. I will overpice myself or undersell myself.

Our craft is subject to market forces, just as any other commodity or product. We don't get to dictate our worth up to a certain point. However, the more popular you become, the more value becomes attached to your "product", your "brand", whether as a solo artist or band, the more control you have to begin to require higher fees for your services. For an artist, the value of a work of art increases (based on size and time invested). For a musician/band, there are limits to how much you can ask for merchandise like T-shirts and posters, mostly around $20.00; and for CDs, you're limited to the industry standard of $10-20.00 per album.

Most musicians do not look at their career as a business. It is what we do, we play an instrument in a band, or as a hired gun, for money. We want as much as we can get from a gig, but generally settle for what they'll give us. This is the standard mindset of most "working" musicians. They do not fully understand their value.

However, to be fair, this is beginning to change, mostly because many musicians know about Union rates, and tend to use them as a benchmark for individual services. But, again, based on how in demand you are, Union rates can often be lower than your actual worth and value for your services. Studio musicians tend to fall into three categories: First call, second call, third call. First call command the highest rates, often in excess of $150.00 per hour. Second call will be somewhat lower, third call is a pretty flat rate, and the lowest on the scale.

Maybe you find this idea that musicians are pretty clueless about business as insulting. Maybe you are offended that I would suggest such a thing. Well, I can prove it simply enough.

There is a reality in the lower eschelons of the music industry. It is simply stated, and can even be called a rule: Bands will undersell themselves, even lose money, to get a gig. There will always be a band willing to "low ball" their asking price below all reasonable fees to get a gig. And many bands will play for free.

For the working musician, this scenario is frightening. And in depressed economic times, it is even worse, it becomes a nightmare.

So all the more reason the aspiring and professional "working" musician needs to understand something about business.

If you are looking at a career in music as the source of your income, you have to have some perspective about it. You have to understand the reality is that you - yes you, are less likely to become "rich and famous" in the way you see guys like Slash, Bono, David Gilmour and others have become. Such success as theirs comes rarely for people. And with the advent of the Internet and independent artists vying for the buying public's dollars, you can be sure that the now smaller disposable income of the average music lover out there isn't going to go toward music unless they really, really like the artist/band.

Fame and fortune may look nice, but they are not necessarily healthy or satisfying as you may think. Kurt Cobain said that when they started Nirvana, it was to have fun and just play music. As the band became more popular, and famous, he lamented that it wasn't fun any more. His joy had become an albatross, filled with obligations, contracts and commitments that destroyed the fun. He slid into a deep depression and addiction (which was an ongoing problem with him even before fame), and eventually committed suicide.

If properly managed and executed, you can have a productive and prosperous career, a career that is satisfying and fulfilling in every way. But you have to be realistic about your expectations. You have to look objectively at just how good a musician you really are. And if you are a song writer, you have to look at the reality of your ability as a song writer. Are you able to write consistently, both lyric and music? Do you realistically need someone who can do one or the other better than you? All this stuff matters. And you need to be honest about just how good or bad you are.

Back to Kurt for a moment. If we ignore all the hype and foolishness, the truth is Kurt Cobain was a mediocre guitar player. His song ideas, or those of his band mates were pretty good, some even brilliant in capturing the angst of his generation (sort of). With a good producer, which they had, guiding the crafting of the songs, and controling the recording process and demanding the musicians step up to play better than they had been, we got some really memorable, albeit disposable, tunes. A couple will be with us always... for the forseeable future, anyway.

So you don't have to be a "great" musician to be a good writer. Good writing is not dependent upon ability to play well. But good, even great writing depends upon your ability to put together a rhythmic melodic idea that works. Lyrics are always difficult for most people. We cannot all be poets and wordsmiths. If you look at the writing credits on the majority of music, particularly that which comes out of Nashville, you will find that there is more than one person credited with writing the song. And some bands will give credit to all the members so they can share the royalties.

One little point I would like to include here about song writing. Forget what your friends say about your ability. They want to be supportive of your efforts and oftentimes will tell you that your songs are good, even great. If they told you the unvarnished truth, that your songs were only okay, perhaps just not very good at all, while it may be true, they risk discouraging you - something they don't want to be responsible for doing.

So the only real way to learn if your songs are even potentially good is to go out and perform them for complete strangers at an open mic night. And not just once, but multiple times at different clubs so you can get a broader sense of audience reaction. Different clubs attract a different clientele, which is what you want. If people react well to your music - and especially if they come up to you afterward and speak to you about a particular song, or your general performance as good, even moving, then you can begin to believe you are starting to craft some good tunes.

And for you band guys and gals, the advice is similar. You have to play out for complete strangers to get a real sense of whether or not people like you. Do they come up after the show and talk about the tightness of the band, the sound of the band being good, and the songs (if you also write)? These are all gauges of your progress as a band and as musicians and writers. It's important, and humbling. Sometimes nobody will come up and comment at all. And the applause was just so-so. Well, not every audience is going to like you. It will be about the "bigger picture" here, do audiences generally like you? If you are getting generally positive comments - particularly from the club owner (here's a clue...did they ask you back?) - that is a good measure of your progress and if you should keep going.

I work with musicians all the time. In my capacity as a producer, it is my job to help make song writers sound better, to make their songs the best they can be. Sometimes that requires a complete re-write of the song, keeping only the idea intact, sometimes leaving it alone is better, the song is fine just as it was written. Some songs have to be reworked from the ground up, keeping what's good, embellishing that quality, and tossing what doesn't work. Lyrics have to be crafted to flow - which does not mean they have to rhyme - but they do have to flow in a way that feels and sounds natural, not forced or contrived, though sometimes you want to keep the trite things in a song, if only to make a deeper or contrasting point.

If you are a side man or session player, the proverbial "hired gun", you do have to be a great musician because for this kind of work you have a lot of competition. Anyone who has gone to Nashville clubs over a weekend can testify to this. There are a whole lot of great players who are not famous out there, playing for a living, making the "dream" work for them at the level they have or hope to achieve. And they're ready to work harder than you can imagine to make it happen.

Personal practice time is not an option, it is a necessity. If you are well focused, you can do this personally with books and such to improve as a player - and that means learning music styles you won't necessarily be playing, but which will teach you things you need to know. Jazz for a Rock player helps you learn composition, chord theory, harmony and melody and more in a way you will never find in most Rock music styles, except for Blues.

Most people will need to have a teacher. A good teacher gives you direction and knows what you don't know, and how to help you learn it. A good teacher will be organized and directed, assessing what you lack, what you need and how to get you there in a way that is beneficial to you and your career. Don't think you don't need a teacher.

I teach both Guitar and Bass, but I am also a student. I have a teacher for Bass because I am not a great Bass player and know I cannot teach myself to be a better Bass player without guided tutoring from someone who has lived and breathed the Bass for many years. My teacher has been playing for 30 years, works consistently, and knows his stuff inside and out.

Remember, we are talking about the business of Music here, not just hopes and dreams. Dreams come true because people work hard to make them come true. For artists and musicians, we are going to toil, sometimes for many years, before we get any real recognition from audiences, let alone our peers. But if this is what you want to do with your life, how you want to earn your keep, then you have to commit to the hard work it is going to take to constantly improve (a lifelong commitment) and to work tirelessly, learning from your mistakes and just not letting the disappointments and the let downs, the bad days, weeks and maybe years keep you down.

I have wanted to give up. I have laid down my music for a time - I was burned out and needed a break, a real break, from the whole business. It lasted longer than I thought or planned. But when I returned, I was reinvigorated, a better player (because I never stopped playing and learning, and I also taught music), and a little wiser for the wear, as they say. I'd been through the grinder before, and now in returning I knew more than before and what to avoid. And I never looked back.

In the second part of this topic, we'll discuss a bit more about how you can ensure success - not fame and fortune, but successful business practices in the pursuit of a music career. There are plenty things you can do that work. One clue I've already given you: you can't give up. If you really are good, you just need to keep plugging away. It's all worth it for those who persevere, who strive to improve and who ignore criticism, except where it really is true (very important to recognise the truth!).