This site is a blog for musicians and music industry people. It is a free educational resource and it is also the way I advertise my music consulting services. I am an entertainment professional with deep roots in the music industry. Throughout my music career I have been a major label A&R representative, a music supervisor, an artist manager, a reality show producer, a bass player and the head of a digital record label.
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I often talk about how frustrated I feel when people ask me “how to get to the next level,” but then have no idea what that “next level” is. Hopefully this conversation will help you start to think about what the “next level” means to you and your career.
Dave Rose is the president of Deep South Entertainment and the author of the book Everything I Know about the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick: The Musician’s Guide to Success. He got his start as a touring and recording bass player. Founded in 1995, Deep South is an artist and business management firm, record label and concert production company based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dave has been guiding and developing the careers of multi-platinum artists for over 20 years, including Grammy-winning and Billboard-charting greats such as Bruce Hornsby, Little Feat, Stryper, Marcy Playground, Five for Fighting, Sister Hazel and Butch Walker.
Dave talked to me about the evolution of Deep South, and what inspired him to write a guide for artists to help them navigate the music industry. He also shared some practical advice for bands about how to build a loyal fan base and a successful career that balances carefully-crafted business and marketing strategies with creating great music, both live and in the studio.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk, Dave. How did you get into the music business?
I got into the business in 1995 with a dear friend of mine, my business partner of 20 years, Andy Martin. We started Deep South Records. The original idea was to put out compilation CDs, and the popular business model at the time was for bands to pay money to be on compilation CDs with the promise and hope that it would get played for bigwigs.
I remember that. And actually, a lot of people got signed off those compilations.
That’s true. But we ended up taking a different approach. We decided not to have bands pay anything and just pick music we like. We had some good success with the first one, which had Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” on it.
Over the course of the first three CDs we put out in two years, 17 of the 60 bands got major label deals. I feel like we got more listens from the industry primarily because we got the word out that this music was handpicked, and thus nobody could write a check big enough to make us put them on there if their music wasn’t up to par.
Then, two of those bands, as they got record deals, were looking for managers. They came back to us and said, “You got us this far; would you consider managing us?” We said we would, and it kick started us opening the management side of our company. Over the years, we’ve handled Bruce Hornsby, Little Feet, the ‘80s Christian metal band Stryper, Marcy Playground and many others. I actually still work with Stryper as their business manager.
So, you basically segued into a management company, also handling business management for some artists.
Yes. We split our time between artist management and business management. Truthfully, as managers, our strength is really the financial side, making sure tours are profitable and that business affairs are intact. That’s why we end up working with a lot of career artists who really need to be on solid ground over a long period of time.
And five years ago, I opened a live music venue in North Carolina as well. We own and operate a small live music venue very similar to Arlene’s Grocery called Deep South, The Bar.
And why did you decide to write Everything I Know about the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick?
From the day we put out the first compilation, I’ve always liked helping bands, much in the same way you enjoy it. I like helping artists navigate the strange marriage of art and commerce. We’ve both seen the industry progress over the past 20 years, and artists have really needed to discover alternative forms of income to make their living in the changing industry.
I had a couple artists I was working with that wanted to release small books or collections of small pieces of writing to Kindle to provide an additional stream of revenue and also to have another creative outlet. As a manager, I really didn’t know how to navigate the world of Amazon and Kindle on the book side of things. So, I decided to write little pieces about the process of figuring out the self-publishing world. One thing turned into another, and I finally got some people involved and decided to turn it into a big book.
It’s really not a big book. It’s 170 pages with probably not a single four-syllable word in it, very geared towards musicians.
Given all our attention spans, that’s a great length.
It is. And it’s split up in a way where you can really just open the book to any point, start reading, spend three minutes and get a short lesson about something you can do that day that will improve your career.
Can you share a common thread that runs through the book, or some basic concepts it outlines that a lot of artists might not understand as they are building their careers?
I’ll start you with who my cousin Rick is. He was my older and cooler cousin. He had long hair, knew all the hot girls and was the coolest guy I knew. He played me my first rock album, Boston in 1977. The theme of the book is that great music tends to find a way to be heard. If you make great music first and foremost, you will start to see a lot of the pieces to the puzzle fall into place. My book teaches you how to gauge whether or not you’re making strides forward in your career. Are people telling other people about your music? If they’re not, the book tells you some of the things you can do to change that as you move along, before it’s too late.
A very regular phone call I get is from bands that say, “We’ve incorporated our band. We’ve trademarked the name. We’ve set up an operating agreement and have opened a checking account. We have all the paperwork in place. What should we do next?”
And I’ll say, “Send me some music.”
They’ll respond, “Well, we’re not there yet. We haven’t started writing or recording, but when we do, we’ll send it.”
This book teaches you how to not put the cart before the horse and how to constantly remind yourself what is important. I know so many musicians that can tell me the ins and outs of a publishing deal, because they’ve read every textbook-style music industry book out there. But what they can’t tell you is whether or not they are progressing musically, or whether their fan base is increasing.
There are so many numbers out there for musicians. Ever since MySpace started, the idea has been that a musician’s self-worth is based on number of views, friends, tweets and re-tweets. What is your gauge? What should numbers look like if things are going well for a band after a year, 20 gigs, etc.?
I think the greatest barometer is your live show. I love to use the example of Butch Walker. I saw Butch play to about 12 people in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina in the mid-90s. He put on his signature Butch Walker-style show: Volume at 11 and giving 110 percent the whole time. After the show, he stayed in touch with those 12 people and told them when he was coming back. But those people were so passionate about what they had seen, that when he came back to Raleigh about four months later, he played to about 40-50 people. And the third time he played this market, he sold out a small room of about 150 people.
The live show is a perfect barometer. Keep track of your live show attendance. Are your numbers increasing or decreasing? If they’re decreasing, it’s a hard pill to swallow, but there is generally something wrong. People are clearly not passionately talking about your music to other people.
I think a lot of people are playing a handful of gigs to warm up with the understanding that they need to play live in order to get tighter and hone the performing craft. I don’t know when a band or an artist should realize, “I’m not going to get so much dramatically better that I will need to reevaluate my product” and stop that process.
Well, and I think the Butch Walker example is a really good one, because he had done his 10,000 hours prior to playing to 12 people in Raleigh. He had done over five years of being on a major label and touring nonstop. There are absolutely reasons to play live and do your thing beyond increasing your fan base. You need to try out new songs, get the band tighter and get yourself better as a musician. Just because your crowds aren’t improving immediately doesn’t mean you need to start completely over.
I’m not a guy who has played thousands of shows, but I’ve certainly played hundreds. And as someone who has played hundreds, my recollection is that the shows I learned the most from were the ones where I was playing to nobody.
Exactly. You get so much better because of those shows. And ideally, if you have done many, many hours of touring, playing and writing and are only playing to the bartender and the soundman, ideally you want to play the kind of show that the bartender and the soundman will talk about the next day when they are living their lives, at the coffee shops, telling people what’s going on in town. You want them to say, “I saw this show last night that was incredible. No one was there, but next time they come through town, you have to check this out. I’ll give you a call.” If you can create that reaction in even one or two people, you’re headed in the right direction.
It’s interesting that you are stressing artists’ offline efforts, because most people are so focused on online marketing right now. Are there other barometers artists should use online? I think people are so hell-bent on conquering social media that they have in many ways lost the plot.
I think you’re right. And there are definitely online barometers. There’s a chapter in my book called, “Social Media: It’s All about Pizza.” I was having a conversation with a 30-something musician who came into my office very distraught over his inability to conquer social media. The misconception is that because it’s free, it’s also easy. I looked at his tweets and Facebook postings, and they were all making the classic mistakes musicians make who are not good at social media. For example, “Hey Guys, I have a show tonight. Come out and see me at 7.” And then you don’t hear from the artist until he has another show or product release.
And this artist told me that he would post all this stuff on Facebook and nobody would re-tweet, comment or talk about it. He felt like everything he said was falling on deaf ears. And I told him, “Make a post about pizza. Everybody likes pizza. Ask your fan base where their favorite place to get pizza is and see what kind of response you get.”
That day, he posted: “Where is your favorite pizza joint, anywhere in the nation?” It was unbelievable the reaction he got. The point is, when musicians are missing the plot, it’s because they don’t realize you have to engage your audience. You can’t just provide information.
What did the pizza conversation lead to?
It led to a conversation, but it also led to a transformation in the way that the artist approached things. Instead of saying, “I have a gig Friday night at 7:00, and you should come out to see me,” he started saying things like, “Is anybody going to see the new Will Ferrell movie Friday? I hear it’s going to be big. I can’t make it because I have a show at Joe’s Pub at 7 p.m. Stop by after the movie if you’re around, but don’t tell me how it ends, because I want to go see it Sunday.” He started having conversations with his fan base rather than just feeding them information.
If you’re an artist, you need to make what you post on social media about the reader and not yourself. Facebook and Twitter are the new flyering. We used to go out as kids and flyer our shows. This is that. In the days of flyering, if you just walked up to someone and gave them a flyer as they were passing you on the street, you might as well ask that person, “Would you mind throwing this away for me?” Instead, if you actually got to know them through a two minute conversation, then handed them a flyer, they would be 10,000 times more likely to come see you.
I think on social media, broadcasting something is much more offensive than handing someone a flyer; broadcasting information via the Internet is like running at someone with a flyer and punching them in the chest with it.
That’s a perfect analogy.
So, musicians regularly make mistakes with their live shows and fan engagement. Is there a third mistake they frequently make?
Yes. The third is actually the first. I think the biggest mistake musicians make is that they don’t clearly define what their idea of success is. In the book, there’s a great transcription of a word-for-word conversation I had with a band that came to meet with me. In a nutshell, they came in, and I asked, “What do you want to do?”
They said, “We want to be successful. Do you know what I mean?”
And I said, “No, I actually don’t know what you mean.”
They said, “We just want to make a living playing music.”
And I said, “Well, that’s easy. Here’s what you’re going to do: Buy some nice tuxedos and suits, learn some Top 40 and wedding songs, and I’ll get you out playing the wedding and corporate circuit. We can have you up and running in 30 days.”
They looked disappointedly at one another, and they said, “No. That’s not what we want to do. We want to make a living playing the music we write.”
So, I said, “Well, that’s not as easy. But you can do it. There are some sports bars and menu venues where you set up and play acoustically over in the corner. You don’t get rich playing those, but you can definitely make a living.”
And again, they ducked their heads down and said it wasn’t what they wanted to do. They thought for a few seconds, then came back and said, “We want to be on the radio.”
So, I said I could have them on the radio by the afternoon. I told them, “There are thousands of Internet radio stations. All you have to do is upload your song. Very few people listen to the smaller ones, but you will get played by one of them by this afternoon and will have been successful.”
This conversation went on and on as they refined what they wanted. Finally, one of them pointed at me and said, “I see what you’re doing, Dave. You’re trying to confuse us.” I told them it was quite the contrary, because they were already confused. They wanted me to help them when they hadn’t even defined what they wanted to do.
And that is the biggest mistake. It’s amazing how many bands just float, never having a conversation about their definition of success and where they want to be. Once you define exactly where you want to be, it’s amazing how different that idea of success is from band to band. And it should be that different. For some, it’s playing successful weekend gigs and doing it as a wonderful hobby. For others, it’s having millions of fans and becoming the next U2. Regardless of what your definition is, you have to start making lists about how to get there: short-term lists; long-term lists. I go through examples of what some of those lists can and should be in the book.
I wrote a blog post recently called “Everything You Need to Forget about the Music Industry.” One of the things that drives me crazy is when people say, “We just want to get to the next level.” It makes me so mad, because I know 99% of the time, those people don’t know what “the next level” means.
No, because they’ve never defined it for themselves. A lot of what Everything I Know about the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick does is get bands talking. It’s encouraging to see the hundreds of emails I’ve received from bands that say, “Because of your book, I called a band meeting for next week. We are outlining exactly what it is we need to do so we can figure out how to get there.”
You’re so right that artists don’t know what the “next level” is. The biggest underlying advice of my book is to regularly check yourself with your definition of success and figure out if the things you are doing are guiding you in that direction.
Do you have any parting words of advice for artists?
First and foremost, realize what you want to do. I promise you that you’ll never get there if you don’t know where you’re going. Even some nationally-known acts find themselves frustrated and disappointed 20 years into their career, and I have a feeling it is because they never sat down and defined what they wanted to do. You really need to define a plan and update it almost weekly. I actually encourage artists to write down their plan and then hang it in a visible place, like in their practice room, etc., so they can regularly remind themselves of it.
To learn more about Dave Rose, his book and the work he does with artists, visit the Everything I Know about the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick website.
With 2012 coming to a close, I wanted to call attention to some of the most interesting articles we’ve featured on the Musician Coaching site this past year. I chose these “Best of” highlights below not only because many were shared the most on Twitter, Facebook and the Web, but also because they hit some of the issues I feel artists and others in the music industry should be particularly focusing on as they develop their craft and build sustainable careers.
I have learned a lot of interesting things on my 20-year journey in the music business. But one of the biggest discoveries came to me as I was building this website and has continued over the past four years: Why do so many people gloss over all the foundational work that is usually required to find great help? Why are people often so divorced from all the work they have to put in on their own to advance their careers and all the time they need to devote to developing their sound and playing shows (especially those poorly-attended ones at tiny venues that build character)? And why do so many think an executive will want to jump in and partner with them when music seems to be just a hobby for them and not a real, thought-out business?
As I mentioned in my article, “Everything You Need to Forget about the Music Industry, “I was watching something on the Science channel about the planets, and an astronomer was talking about an asteroid hitting the earth. He said, ‘There has been more money spent on movies about asteroids hitting the earth than money spent on preventing asteroids from hitting the earth.’”
Since I heard that statement, I haven’t ever looked at media – the field I’ve been focused on for my entire life – in the same way. And it made me think even more about the different stories that the media tells us about what it means to be “successful,” as musicians (and human beings), and how the way we compare ourselves to the media’s ideals impacts our own quest for success.
Using the example of the layout of VH1’s popular Behind the Music series, I pointed out how we are all told success stories that are based more often on the moments after a famous artist’s album comes out and that person becomes a huge celebrity by creating a genre changing piece of work or a huge commercial success. We are less often told about the reality of people everywhere that continue to work steadily and persistently and make a real living in music.
The article ended with this point: “If you want to achieve your goals as a musician, you need to get really specific and write out a business plan. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to write a business plan or if you believe that it’s only for raising money or that it requires fancy number-crunching graphs. Truthfully, a business plan can start off as simply just visualizing where you want your music to take you in the next six months.”
As I said, I can’t write down a plan that will work for every artist, but I can offer a few guidelines if you are devoted to music for life and want to stop pursuing it as just a fun hobby:
- Build a solid business foundation. Figure out how money is made in this industry and how publishing works. Register with ASCAP, BMI or SESAC and SoundExchange. Make sure you have a business entity established and trademark your name.
- Get your marketing materials in order. You’re going to need at least a 4-song recording (and one that requires no apologies), a well-written bio, a logo, a professional photo and a video of you performing live (for an actual crowd). You’ll also need vanity URLs on social networks, a website and to make sure all your digital real estate is interconnected.
- Set yourself up for the long haul. You need to engage in long-term planning if you want to work as a musician. Most “normal” businesses are not in the black for three, to five years, so why should a music business be any different? If you are truly in this for life, you should be investing in your business in a way that ensures you are set up to play and record music and get it to people at a moment’s notice over an extended period of time. This could mean building a home studio and getting a P.A. and a van. The point is, you’re going to have to plan multiple releases over a number of years and be prepared to play countless gigs. And you’re going to need to know how to accomplish this as cheaply and easily as possible. Don’t blow all your money on your first release, expecting it will propel you instantly to financial stability. Plan on truly playing and recording music on an on-going basis.
- Build a community and diversify. The music, the money and “the hang” (who you seek out as collaborators and the other musicians with whom you surround yourself on a regular basis) determines which gigs you should take, even if they divert you from your original work – sideman work, apprenticeships, etc. Remember, even Hendrix was a sideman.
- Think about B2C and B2B. It is also important to consider that everyone is talking about direct-to-fan in the digital age – an obvious, unfiltered Business to Consumer strategy (B2C). As they are building their communities, I’m of the opinion that many fledgling artists should also pursue Business to Business (B2B) relationships with like-minded artists. If you convince one band with a 50-person mailing list in another town that you are worth a damn, you can get your music in front of those people and start to break a new market if you’re willing to do the same promotion for them on a gig trade.
The confusion and frustration you may be feeling about your music career is just part of the process. (It’s just not part of the process that people really talk about!)
In September, I had the pleasure of talking to Danny Barnes, a banjo player and a songwriter who has been a working musician for over 30 years. We discussed his long career in the music business and his views on the modern music climate. He also shared some advice for artists that want to successfully build their lives around music and become truly great at their craft.
Widely known as one of the world’s most innovative and versatile artists, Danny mixes non-traditional music like rock fusion and jazz with electronic percussion instruments, still rooted in the traditional bluegrass, country and folk music for which his instrument is known. A lifelong music “fanatic” in every sense of the word, he decided he would make a career in music at 10, when, deeply inspired by the many records his parents played at home, he began to diligently study his craft. Known for his positive and refreshingly-honest attitude towards being an artist in the modern music industry, he continues to dedicate himself to growth and further innovating his instrument by learning from and collaborating world-renowned master musicians, including Bela Fleck, Lyle Lovett, Nickel Creek, John Popper, Chuck Leavell and Dave Matthews. He puts out music through ATO Records.
Danny candidly shared his passion for music, his candid thoughts about the current music climate and where he believes artists should be focused. One of the most powerful things Danny said in his interview was, “It’s possible to mimic things closely. We can find someone down at the bus stop, get them a makeover, auto-tune them and make them look and sound a lot like a guy on TV. I think that’s distracting. The response that creative people should have to stimuli is to make something. Imitating somebody is not making something. I’m not saying you shouldn’t gather inspiration from people. But our response to being inspired should be to create something ourselves.”
I talked to Gregory Mead, co-Founder of MusicMetric, in early August. MusicMetric is a company that aggregates and analyzes all music-related trend information available on the Web for over 600,000 artists and over 10 million individual releases in real time throughout the world. As I mentioned in the interview, Musicmetric is also the first product I have ever openly recommended to musicians on my site. Greg helped develop the technology behind Musicmetric while earning his degree in computational physics at Imperial College London. At the time, he was working as a Music Editor for the major London student newspaper Felix and recognized the need for an efficient Web tool that would help his team of 30 music reviewers seek out new artists in London. Alongside Co-Founders Marie-Alicia Chang and Matt Jeffery, he launched Musicmetric in 2007 in an effort to create an easy way for those working in the music industry to track important music data and statistics. A fan of live music, he has also been involved in organizing live events throughout London.
Greg shared his background in music and technology and, more specifically, why metrics tracking and analysis is important for artists at all stages in their careers. He also shared information about how Musicmetric can help artists become more aware of how their music is being received and take informed steps to build a loyal fan base. He said, “There are three broad categories of the data we track: file sharing; social media and online mentions, which of course involve analyzing text in reviews while crawling the Web … There are other music analytics services that attempt to focus only on the social media part, which we have in our product. But having the file-sharing data and the mentions feature is really important because it gives you a broader view of what is going on.”
The past decade or so has been a particularly challenging time for artists. They can no longer just focus on making great music or rely on someone else to do all their marketing, promotion and business tasks for them. Now, social media and technology tools designed to help artists build intensely personal relationships with their fans and turn more people on to their art are necessary. Add to this the fact that the industry is changing faster than ever before, giving birth to entirely new business models and figuring out what to focus on in order to find long-term success can be a difficult task. How can you thrive in the shifting modern music climate?
In May, I got to catch up with Tom Silverman, the founder and head of TommyBoy Entertainment, as well as the principal executive of the New Music Seminar. Tom has graciously agreed to contribute quite often to the Musician Coaching website and honestly share his vast expertise and his views on the evolving industry. Throughout his amazing career, he has worked with and broken artists like De La Soul, Digital Underground, House of Pain, Queen Latifah and Afrika Bambaataa.
In the interview I entitled “Monetization, Myths and the Modern Artist,” Tom and I discussed what artists are going to need to do from a business and artistic perspective to be successful in the evolving industry: “[One trend that's emerging] is monetizing attention. One of the things we’ve learned from Instagram, Facebook, Google and everything like that is that we’re in an attention-based economy: Attention equals dollars now. If you look at the attention that’s garnered by the artists and music that the labels control, it seems like there should be a better way to monetize that attention. Labels are so focused on selling albums and secondarily, music, that they aren’t really focused on monetizing the attention and focus that those artists and that music create. If they created relationships with artists where they would manage and monetize the relationships artists have with fans and the impressions the artists and their music create in the world, the value of that would probably be 10-50-times greater than just selling records.”
Above all, Tom’s thoughts on the subject were positive. And as promised, he shared these positive thoughts at this year’s New Music Seminar, where we both spoke in June: “I’m optimistic, though. And at the New Music Business Seminar this year, we plan to be optimistic – no whining and complaining. If you don’t have a way you think the business can be better or that artists can do better, get more exposure or make more money or do something better than has been done before – if you don’t have a way to improve things – stay home … At a lot of the other conferences, people talk about what a mess everything is, but, that’s not the way we want to look at it.”
If you’re an independent artist without label support, juggling all the elements of your career by yourself, from marketing your music, to booking shows and seeking out new opportunities to connect to your fans is no easy task. If you’re confused – as so many artists are – by the many intricacies of the industry, you might feel as though you are spending more time on menial, business-related tasks than on your music.
In mid-April, I got to talk to New York City-based DJ, producer, remixer and music company owner MING (a.k.a. Aaron Albano) about his own multi-faceted experience in the business and how he has managed to stay balanced and focused on his art while seizing every opportunity to build critical relationships with fans and music industry professionals in order to continue to get to make a living pursuing his life’s passion. From the age of nine, MING trained as a classical and jazz guitarist and played in hair metal bands throughout high school. Because of his passion for production and interest in building a solid career in the music industry, he decided to pursue a degree in electrical engineering with a focus on audio at the University of Miami. He continued to fine-tune his production and DJ’ing skills in college and upon graduation, looking for a way to fund the development of his home studio, MING found work in the burgeoning Internet industry. During this time, MING met renowned musician and DJ FS and together they formed the duo Ming+FS, a collaboration which went onto produce four studio albums and over 30 singles. Eventually, he founded the record label Hood Famous Music. As an artist, MING is managed by Stephanie Lafera at Atom Empire, which counts huge artists such as Lady Gaga among its talent.
During our interview, MING stressed that artists in all genres need to stay forever focused on the music: “You always need to be working to get better at your craft. Try to work with as many people as possible. Have a point of view and a unique sound. Bring something new to the table … And learn how to collaborate. Just because you can do everything by yourself now doesn’t mean you should … The more people you can collaborate with, the better you will be as a musician, and the larger your fan base will be … [And] be honest with the music you’re making. It’s okay to make music that is not successful. But if you want to make music that you’re going to make your money from, you have to find the line between art and commerce and be able to ride that line comfortably. You have to be able to carve out a career where you’re making money from the art that you make. Otherwise, you can call yourself a professional musician, but you’re really just a hobbyist with an addiction.”
He added that DIY musicians need to proceed carefully and intelligently: “Putting out your own record is all fine and good if you understand the business – if you have your social marketing down, have good networks and a good fan base, if you understand business and can manage money. You know what it’s like to run a record label, a touring business and a merch business. There’s a lot to understand. And most young musicians at 22 do not know how to do all that. They play to 50 people in their home town, have 100 Twitter followers, 50 people following them on Facebook and think people know who they are. From a global business perspective, you’re basically invisible at that point … I’m always telling young musicians that it’s not enough to make your own record and put it out on your own label. You haven’t been put through the system, and you haven’t been validated by fans or the other people who are going to help sell your records. You’re an army of one. Some of these deals you do in the beginning won’t be good. Make sure the deals you do in the beginning are short term or limited to a certain number of years. But it’s valuable to do records on larger labels and have other people validate your music.”
You can expect many more interviews and articles from some incredibly talented, knowledgeable folks coming up in 2013, so stay tuned. Here’s to a very happy and healthy New Year!
Don Passman is one of the top entertainment attorneys in the U.S. and author of the non-fiction best seller All You Need to Know about the Music Business. A graduate of the University of Texas and Harvard Law School, Don got his start in music when he picked up accordion, which led to other instruments including guitar and five-string banjo. After playing in bands throughout college and law school, he decided to officially move over to the business side. With over 20 years as a lawyer in the music industry, his clients include major entertainers, publishers, record companies, managers, producers and other music entrepreneurs. He was responsible for negotiating record-breaking “mega” deals for both Janet Jackson and R.E.M. and has worked with many other major artists. Don has lectured extensively on subjects related to the music industry at organizations and events including the UCLA Entertainment Law Symposium, Harvard Law School, the American Bar Association, the Los Angeles Copyright Society and many others. He is also the president of the Music Industry Division and is a Trustee of the Artists’ Rights Foundation as well as vice president for the Center for Early Education. He recently released the Eighth Edition of All You Need to Know about the Music Business.
I have been fortunate enough to interview many amazing people since starting this website over three years ago, but Donald Passman is someone I have looked up to and quoted for many years, and his book was the first book I read when I knew I wanted to get into the industry. I can now honestly say I have interviewed the man who wrote the book on the music business.
Thank you so much for taking some time to talk, Don. How did you find your way to the music industry?
I always loved music. I played accordion as my first instrument, which at the time, I thought was really cool. My stepfather was a disc jockey as well, so I was always around music and listening to it. In college, I played in a band and kept playing throughout law school. But eventually, based on my musical talent, I discovered that I wasn’t going to be able to make a living at it, so I moved over to the business side.
Yes. That’s a familiar story, a lot like mine. And of course, you’ve written a really great book about the music industry that has had many new editions over the years. Which sections have you found you needed to update the most with each re-write?
In the Eighth Edition, the biggest updates were around the digital area of the music business, which is just changing so rapidly and radically. Of course, Spotify is huge. Jimmy Iovine at Interscope is also going to be launching a new streaming service next year, because he’s just bought MOG. Rdio and Rhapsody have become quite important in recent months and years, and YouTube has certainly become very meaningful as well. And we’re starting to see locker services. I don’t know how big a business that will ultimately be, but it does involve legal rights. All these things need to be covered, and the law involved with them is changing as are the best practices.
I definitely want to get more into aspects of the digital world, but having been involved with music and entertainment law for so many years, which areas in the music business do you think are the most commonly misunderstood by artists and others? When I was trying to make it as a musician, it was publishing that always baffled me.
Musicians understandably don’t like dealing with the business side, for the most part. Some of them are really good at it, but most do not enjoy it. And that’s really why I wrote the book: There are a few key concepts that, if you understand them, can really help you understand how your money comes in and where it’s supposed to come from. And then you can more intelligently participate in the decisions in your life.
Can you give some solid examples of people who were really taken advantage of because they didn’t understand the business side?
I have a few hundred thousand of those examples. There are some that are very publicly known, like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. They were stuck in very unfavorable long-term agreements and ended up being engaged in very public battles about them.
I was also told that Van Halen actually didn’t have a lawyer during their biggest touring years. This allegedly cost them millions of dollars.
Speaking of dollars (albeit not Millions) I do a lot of work in product management and thus deal a lot with digital and online music issues. I’m seeing all these pennies trickle in for artists. A million views on YouTube nets you something like $15 in performance royalties and the advertising revenue on YouTube is slim. Are there any areas of digital music you would recommend artists look into now because they are potentially more lucrative than others?
When you’re an aspiring artist, your goal is not so much to rack up the dollars as it is to rack up a fan base. The whole key to success these days is being able to get a lot going on your own. In fact, a lot of successful artists now never hook up with an indie or a major label; they just do it completely on their own. That’s happening more and more.
But it still depends. On the other hand, if you want to be a world-renowned artist on the radio, promoted in every territory, that’s something no artist has been able to do yet without the help of a major label that has money, expertise and clout.
Certainly in the beginning, whether you’re going to do it entirely on your own or attach to a label, you have to build a fan base, a presence and an audience.
You have a number of name brand artists as clients. Could you point to anything that those people do differently from the average musician that is not as successful as they have been?
Yes. They definitely do things differently. And this is something I’ve been a student of, because I have been very fascinated by why some artists are huge and others aren’t. The funny thing is, it’s not about talent, because I’ve known some incredibly talented people that have had only moderate careers or no careers at all. The real keys to success are drive and determination. You need to be willing to walk through walls to get to where you need to go and not get discouraged. I think that is something really big they have all had in common.
I definitely didn’t know that when I was an A&R guy. I always went after talent. But you’re right. Looking back, I realize the artists that really made it were those that had pure belief in themselves and did not have a Plan B. They didn’t feel that anything other than being a musician was possible.
Exactly. And they also don’t care how many times they are told “No,” or how many obstacles are put in front of them; they just keep moving.
And how are you seeing the heritage artists stay alive now that the master bundle of rights are not as valuable as they once were? Where are their businesses headed?
Heritage artists are mostly making their money off touring. It’s very difficult if not impossible for them to get on the radio, because their audience is older and not that interested in new music. They will have some success with it, but not at the level they enjoyed in their heyday. They also make money off their catalogs, which still sell quite well and make some money for them as well.
Most musicians these days have to run their own businesses in order to get started in the industry, so the line between “executive” and “artist” has become blurred. What piece of advice would you give to somebody just starting out in the music business?
I think being in the music business is all about relationships. It’s a relatively small business, and I think you just have to get out and get visible. You have to meet people and go to events. You also have to look at the trends and see where you fit into them and what your deepest passions are. My experience is that people who follow their passions – and this is true for anything in life – are going to be more successful than those who are just doing something in order to make a living. Passion is really the most important quality. The real breakthroughs in life, whether in business or in art, come from those who are driven, passionate and feel they simply have to do what they are doing.
And that passion element is really interesting. I work in marketing, so I talk to people all the time about what really makes them unique. “Dude Releases Record” isn’t really press worthy. Of your most successful clients, would you say that most of them had interests and passions outside of music that they also pursued?
Some of them do and some of them don’t. A lot of them are just completely dedicated to their music career, even to the detriment of their family and personal life. But you get that in any business. If you read the Steve Jobs book, you’ll see that his family wasn’t his top priority. I don’t think that’s unique to the music business. Some people have a lot of interests, others are more focused on one thing.
You mentioned the digital landscape has experienced the biggest change of all the music industry areas in the past few years. Are there any other major changes about how to make it in the music industry that you outline in the Eighth Edition of All You Need to Know about the Music Business?
Digital has really experienced the greatest shift, though obviously, there are other elements that have shifted around. For example, a lot of the percentages have changed and the deals artists are getting have gotten a lot smaller. All those details are updated as well in the latest version of the book.
To learn more about Don Passman and the work he does in the music industry, visit the Don Passman website. Please also check out the Eighth Edition of his best-selling book, All You Need to Know about the Music Business.
To mark the end of the year, I wanted to put together a post highlighting some of the notable articles and interviews that have been featured on the Musician Coaching site in 2011. I chose the “Best of” listed below not only because they were some of the most shared on social media sites and the Web in general, but also because they covered some of the most important issues I feel artists and others getting into the music industry should be focusing on as they build their careers.
Are your emails to industry executives being returned? As I discussed in this article about music marketing from mid April, your attempts to reach out could be met with silence because you’re making the following common five mistakes:
- You’re writing a form letter. You may be able to get your message out to hundreds or even thousands of people. But if people feel like you are sending them a form letter about a specific need or a desired business relationship, then it’s over. No one likes to feel like they are just a name on a list. It is perfectly acceptable to cut and paste part of a letter to a certain type of executive, but at least take the time to customize the first few sentences and address them by name. Also, let the person you are contacting know specifically why you are contacting them. What makes you think you are a good fit for what they do and why?
- You’re presenting yourself poorly. This is so common it boggles the mind. I often get emails from people in which their names are not obvious from the email address and not included in the “from” field by their email program. On top of that, they don’t bother to introduce themselves or put any kind of signature indicating who they are or where they are from. Other ways people present poorly include using bad grammar and spelling and saying, “I have talent,” thinking that in and of itself is a major selling point (and the main reason the person on the other end should respond).
- You’re not doing your research. You can much more easily begin a personal relationship with someone when you have specifics about their job function and their professional history. With blogs, LinkedIn and any of the other resources available online these days there is no excuse not to have a good understanding of what people have done in the past and on which projects they have worked. Knowing these things can go a long way in adding a personal touch to the email you are sending someone.
- You have unreasonable expectations. Bluntly asking for a huge favor, a contract, a partnership, a record deal or any other lasting business relationship from a stranger in a first email is inappropriate. I can’t tell you how many emails I get without any information, background or even someone’s name that say something to the effect of “Help! I am really talented and I need you to manage me.” Take your time to get to know someone and what they do. Breaking the ice with an email never instantly leads to a partially executed contract on your doorstep. It’s supposed to lead to building a relationship and getting someone to take you seriously enough to give your material their time and attention.
- You haven’t defined your goals. Vague emails are really hard to respond to. A very common request I get (and I’m sorry, I know I reference this a great deal) is about “getting to the next level.” Do I understand in a general way what it means? Sure. Do I know specifically what people mean by that and what they need or if I am a good fit for getting these people to said next level? No, I don’t have a clue. Before asking someone else for help, make sure that you have clearly defined your goals. Many people respond with knee-jerk responses like, “I want a publishing deal,” or “I need a booking agent.” It’s important to break down these wants into what most people actually mean. What people forget is that for every brilliant partnership, there are plenty of lousy ones. And many of the lousy ones result from people not taking the time to really think through their needs and desires.
Last spring, I talked to Fred Pessaro, a contributing editor at the popular New York City-based music blog BrooklynVegan. Originally from Washington, D.C., Fred got his start in the music industry as a fan of hardcore and punk music and started regularly attending local shows in his hometown at an early age. His interest in freelance writing and photography and his love for music brought him to New York City, where he began to write for and contribute photos to music publications including Fuse, Time Out and Decibel. He has been working with BrooklynVegan since 2007 and also does some booking in the New York City area.
In this interview, Fred was kind enough to share some “dos” and “don’ts” for artists that want to get covered in blogs and other publications. As he said, “I think if you’re a young band today, the best thing you can do is put together a record and give it away for free. Let as many people hear it as possible. I think that’s important on the recorded front and the live front. Any time someone asks you to play a show, you should take it. If you’re a Twee band, and someone asks you to open for a metal band, play it anyway. If you’re playing first on a 12-band bill at 3 p.m., play it anyway. At the end of the day, playing the show is important, whether there are five people there or 5,000 people there. But it’s also important that your name is on a show, and your name is repeated as many times as it can be repeated. If I were a young band, I would play anywhere and everywhere as often as I could, and I would give away my music to anyone that would hear it. Also, maybe you can do something like print up t-shirts with a catchy design that someone might wear whether they liked your band or not. And sell them at cost. Basically, the more times someone sees your name, the easier it’s going to be for them to recognize it down the road. It’s the idea of conditioning. The more times you mention a name, the more the name will become a part of everyone’s consciousness as opposed to ‘just another band out there.’”
In August, I spoke with the legendary Art Munson, founder of Music Library Report, a comprehensive directory of music libraries and services for composers and songwriters designed to help them make educated decisions about choosing to which music libraries they should submit their work. With nearly five decades of playing, songwriting and producing experience, Art got his start in the music industry playing guitar with Dick Dale and the Deltones in the 1960s. He has done studio and live work with artists such as the Righteous Brothers, John Lennon, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams. In the 1980s he built and ran his own home recording studio where he worked with artists such as David Sandborn and Vonda Shepard. Just since early 2001, he has written hundreds pieces of music for production music libraries which have been placed in a variety of films and television shows. He and his wife Robin also run their own small record label, publishing and production company called Munsong Records.
Art shared his own story about getting into the music industry and also outlined some best practices for songwriters trying to choose which production libraries are the best fit for their work: “Maybe the best thing I could say is, ‘Write what you really love to write.’ And there are some parameters to follow with library music. You should have editable music, so the music editor can make really clear edit points. It might be a nice, strong intro that’s no more than four-bars long so you can get right into it. And I fight with that editable point too. Because I want to write songs that are musical and have a nice flow to them. And there’s a place for that also. As I said, there are really no hard and fast rules. But I do try to pay attention to really strong edit points, so that music editor can get in and out cleanly.”
In late October, I featured a guest post by Julia L. Rogers in which she outlined 5 concrete elements that should go into a compelling artist bio. Julia helps me behind the scenes at MusicianCoaching.com and is a classically-trained musician, a published author and a contributing music writer at Bitch magazine. Julia plays out regularly in New York City in various original projects. She also writes about business strategy, social media and emerging technology for corporate clients ranging from the Huffington Post to American Express … and she can be hired to write artist and band bios through the site.
In “5 Tips about Writing Your Own Band Bio,” Julia said, “If you want to be taken seriously as an artist, you have to have promotional material. And your bio is one of the most critical components – if not the most critical component of your press kit. (Sorry, but no one cares about your music if you can’t introduce yourself properly.) Your bio represents your first opportunity to spark interest in someone who will be a champion for your music. Besides communicating essential information about you, a well-written bio portrays you as a professional that has some understanding of the business you’re in – music. And when you take some time to thoughtfully craft it, you convey to your fans, to press, media and labels that you are serious about making music your career.”
And her 5 tips for artists trying to put together an eye-catching bio were …
- Clearly define your mission statement.
- Skip birth and childhood.
- Highlight personal stories and anecdotes.
- Use your long-form bio sparingly.
- Plan to update all your bios often.
Prolific songwriter Jonathan Mann has been writing and recording one song per day since January 1, 2009 for his Song A Day project. For over 1,000 days, he has been posting a daily – usually humorous – song to YouTube that touches upon news and current events. A graduate of Bennington College in Vermont, Jonathan started playing guitar and writing songs when he was inspired by the music of Bob Dylan at age 12. Song A Day has earned him a great deal of press attention and brought him a number of interesting collaborative projects. He has appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show and has been commissioned to write songs for companies including Apple, TechCrunch, Dobly, ChaCha, Cisco, Microsoft, Groupon and AirBnB. Last spring, he used the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise $13,000, which funded his record Song A Day: The Album.
A couple weeks ago, Jonathan was kind enough to tell me the story of how he first started playing music and provide some insight for other artists trying to stay inspired to write new music. He also discussed how people can leverage YouTube as well as other online (and offline!) tools in order to get their music heard, find opportunities for collaboration and build personal relationships with their fans: “One of the biggest things I’ve observed regarding YouTube is that you have to collaborate. If you want to grow your audience, you find people that you like and that you respect from YouTube, and you reach out to them with a good idea, then collaborate with them and make something. That way, your audience gets to see them, and their audience gets to see you. I started making online video in 2005 right when YouTube started. And had I known that collaboration was one of the biggest tricks on that platform, maybe I would’ve done more of that.”
When asked about time management/finding the time to write, Jonathan added, “…it’s really just about commitment. You just have to commit to doing it. I would also encourage people to do a song a day … Just challenge yourself to do it for a month. Once you commit yourself to it, it just becomes part of your life … What you do when you do that is set yourself up to make great music. If you do that every day, just by sheer probability, something you make is going to be great.”
Of course, I have more interviews and articles from some incredibly talented, knowledgeable folks coming up in 2012, so stay tuned. Happy New Year!
Munsey Ricci runs an independent Radio promotion and marketing company called Skateboard Marketing. Skateboard Marketing puts hard rock and metal acts on Active Rock, Album Oriented Rock (AOR) stations and College stations that play metal. Munsey started his career as a guitar player, worked in a jingle house as an engineer and created the Metal department for Polygram records in 1989 before starting Skateboard Marketing. Over the past seventeen years Munsey has worked with Disturbed, Pantera, Megadeth, Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Anthrax just to name a few. He was kind enough to take the time to be interviewed about how radio and radio promotion works.
What does doing independent promotion entail?
When you do independent promotion you use your relationships at radio and in the industry to get records played on the radio. So if you’re a radio promotion company, you have your whole list of stations; we have 400 commercial and college and syndicated metal shows. We call radio every week. We have a bulk permit with the post office and do all our mailings in house. I schedule an ad date, set a record up with the trade magazines and from hat point we call radio every week.
We ship a record every week and send a tracking report: these are the people we called; this is where the record is getting played; these are the chart numbers it had. It’s not as easy as everyone thinks it is. A lot of bands could say, “I’m just going to send my stuff out or service my stuff out digitally.” Great, but by servicing yourself digitally, if you don’t have a relationship at that radio station or you don’t know how to get a hold of the PD or the MD or the person that does the metal show, your phone calls and e-mails are falling on deaf ears.
You have to know how to get to them, what they are into, what they like to play, when they like to play it, how to get them on the phone. Then you can be physically accepted and get your records played at that station.
Obviously, every station is different. Every metal show is different and every active station is different. How they program, and what records they put on really goes by the station. If you look at, for example, what Eddie Trunk does in New York at Q104, it’s not going to be the same thing that Full Metal Jackie does in Los Angeles. Eddie Trunk won’t play “Lamb of God.” He will play a Winger record or a Scorpions record. Full Metal Jackie will play Slayer and “Lamb of God.” That’s where the differences come from. You have to know what a station does before you call it up on the phone and give a laundry list; because it’s very counter-productive to do it any other way.
When is the right time to go to radio for bands just starting out?
There’s never a wrong time and there’s never a right time. You have to time it right. The end of the year, because of the holiday crunch and all the records going for ads is a bad time. If you’re an independent, it’s not that you’re going to get lost in the sauce, but it’s a bad time because radio will only have space for ten records. They’ll pick their ten favorite records, which will usually be made up of mostly more established artists.
If you’re an independent, they’ll say, “I listened to this record and I like this record but I didn’t like this other record, and I only have room for five.” So they’re only going to put in one. If you look at the schedules and say, “I know February and March are going to be pretty light; there aren’t going to be that many releases coming,” then you can schedule the record for February or March.
Really what that comes to is, once the band finishes their record, they have to stop and look at scheduling, see what’s on the schedule, know what’s coming out and what they can and can’t compete with. They have to know their limitations. The only way to know that is to look at the schedule. If someone wanted to go for ads this week [two weeks before Thanksgiving] and they are a brand new band, I’d advise them not to. I’d say, “Let’s go next week or the week after. Or let’s wait until January because there’s less traffic.” But that’s just 2009-2010. 2010-2011 can be a completely different ballgame.
What about timing in a band’s development as far as going to radio? Should a band be at a certain point in their career? What sells a new band to a program director or music director at a station?
Anything you do is good for hype. A band needs to be visible. There are some advantages to a band of getting a tour today. If you’re a developing artist and you’re not signed, to get a major tour is very hard. It’s usually a buy-on, and not unless they’re going to take you out. The only way to get a tour is to wind up getting on a packaged bill; and the only way to get a packaged bill is through an agency that sees the band has a publicist, a radio promotion company in place and that there is product readily available in the marketplace, because they want to see promotion. If you don’t have any of these factors, you’re not going to get a tour. If you do have all these factors, it’s still going to be extremely difficult if you’re not signed. If you are signed and are an independent, the chances of you getting a tour are better, because obviously you’re going to have a record company that will say, “Hey listen – I need to get my band out on the road, do you want to buy in?” And if a record company goes to them with $5,000 in tour support and asks what they can do, it’s going to open up a lot of doors. On the same token, it depends on the band and the record. Some bands make a great record, but it falls on deaf ears. Other bands make a bad record and other people say, “Yeah, I heard it and I really didn’t like it.” But at least people listen to it and you are able to close a few stations and develop the bands. Artist development always starts on the street level. You have to take the hype that the band did, all the press that the band had and combine it all together and throw it out at radio. Then you can say, “This is who my band is, this is why you should be listening.
How do you recommend approaching stations as a band?
Twenty years ago, if you didn’t have a house PA system, you couldn’t tour. Now it’s a different story. The smart things most bands could do is take their time with the record. Don’t say, “Come on, we have to get it done!” Go in the studio, take your time. If it takes two months or three months, get it right. Get the tracks right, get the mix right. Get everything right. When you do artwork, don’t do cheesy artwork. Spend a couple bucks and get some really good artwork. Get a uniform barcode and get the album barcoded. Have it pressed from one of the pressing plants, whether it’s Digital Works or Play-It Productions. Bring it to somebody that’s going to do the printing right. When it’s all right, then is the opportunity to go get a publicist and get a radio promotion company to do it.
I take out new bands every week; we have all signed independents and majors. But the bands that aren’t signed need to do it that way. Otherwise it’s just another local band trying to get their stuff played. “Do it right and take your time” is my best suggestion to them. Then they come to me with a record that looks professional, sounds professional, has good songs on it, is shrink-wrapped and has a security seal on it, and retail can take it in. Then you have the opportunity to deliver finished product to a distributor and try to sell some records.
So actually having a physical CD matters?
You are never really going to abolish physical product. There is always going to be somebody that wants a physical record. Someone is always going to want to see artwork and liner notes and pictures of the band. They’re going to want to have the physical disc. If you look at SoundScan, some titles, downloads exceed physical; and on some titles physical exceed downloads. It depends on the band.
If you want to use this as an example – Dream Theater. Their fans are loyal and faithful, but still, when you go to a record store, fans would rather buy a Dream Theater record than just go and download it. As far as radio is concerned, will look at for digital delivery for radio is that it’s inexpensive and a lot cheaper than manufacturing and serving the old school way where you just throw it into an envelope and send it; but you still need to send some physical to select people.
That’s one of the ways you can cut your overhead on promotion and marketing costs as far as publicity, retail and radio is concerned by servicing everybody digitally, but there are still going to be industry people that want the physical product, and I’m one of them. I have a CD rack that goes from one end of my wall to another and from the ceiling to the floor. Every week I go to the store and buy stuff. I like to have the disc, and then I rip it into iTunes. As far as radio stations go, there are select radio stations I deal with, like Carl Schmidt at WVBR in Ithaca and Joe Wyatt at WEOS in Geneva. These are two prime examples. They’ve been doing the metal show at both of their stations for ions, and they want the physical product. They want to put it in their racks and are avid collectors. You’re never going to eliminate the collector or the real die-hard music fan that just wants to support the band they like. They’re going to go buy the records regardless. If you’re in the band, the most important thing you have is your fans, and you want to make sure you take care of your fans. Obviously ten years down the road there will be more digital than physical, but you’re still not going to abolish physical discs.
Knowing what you know now, if you were in a band today, how would you choose someone to help you bring your product to radio?
My suggestion would be, whether you’re metal, alternative, pop, urban or hip hop artist is to find out who the key players are first. The way to do this is to call somebody you know at a record company and say, “Hey, I’m an alternative artist, and I want to take my record out. Who are the companies you use?” Then you send each one of them a copy of the record and let them listen to the record. If the person says, “Yeah, it’s great, I’ll do it for five grand,” right away you know it’s not the right person. You want someone that gets the band and gets the music and is a fan of the band first. Then you want to see if this person is the right guy and where are his relationships, what is his past track record and what has he done? These are what you need to look at. Once you see that, then the most important thing is talking to other artists and asking them if they like the person, who they got the best vibe from, if they really like the person, if the person is right for you, etc.
The only way to do this is to physically pick up the phone, call someone, tell them who you are, give them the record and ask what they can do with it. That’s the only way you can do it. Anybody in a band knows people that are signed and have tours. You ask, “Who did you use for your independent radio promotion?” And there’s your referral. It’s a very small community and very tightly-niched.
What’s your opinion of the value of college radio in the current climate?
If you look at the big picture on college radio, usually about 60-80 college stations in the country have a cumulative audience – a cume – and affect sales in their market. If you look at WSOU in South Orange, NJ, they’re the largest college station in the country. And when they add a record, we see sound scan. There are only a handful of others. The other stations, they don’t really have a cume. If you’re looking at a small 300-Watt station, they have listeners – five, ten or twenty faithful listeners or their friends that listen when they play new stuff. And then you’ll get one fan who listens to the record and says, “Hey, I really like this band.” And then he plays it for two of his friends, and then this person goes out and plays it for two of his friends. If you sell five records, you did your job, and you developed the artist and created five more fans. And then you have five more fans to add to your fan base. All college is important. Because they are supporting what they believe in. If they are supporting my band, then I want to support them. I don’t care if they are 3 watts or 30,000 watts. Support who supports your band.
Do you have any general words of caution or advice for artists?
Take your time with your record and make sure it’s right. Once you know everything’s ready to go and you’re getting ready to pick the people to work with, make sure they are the right people to work with – the people you feel comfortable with. Don’t be afraid to call someone you don’t know. Pick up the phone and just do it. I take calls all the time from new bands. I’ll talk to anybody looking to make the next step. I just love being part of a new bands career.
Click for more information about Munsey Ricci and Skateboard Marketing