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.
Posts Tagged ‘music as a business’
Chris Wallace is a singer, songwriter and producer as well as the former front man for the pop rock band The White Tie Affair. A major music fan and a serious athlete growing up in Hebron, IN, Chris picked up guitar as a teenager after he broke his collarbone playing soccer and was looking for a way to channel his energy. He played in local bar bands and eventually put together his own band Quad Four, simultaneously embracing his skills as a lead vocalist. He decided to post a track he wrote, “Allow Me To Introduce Myself … Mr. Right” on MySpace, which exploded overnight and led him to get signed to Epic Records and to form the band The White Tie Affair. In 2012, he recorded his debut album as a solo artist, Push Rewind. The first single, “Remember When (Push Rewind),” which continues to thrive on Top 40 radio, was named one of iTunes “Best Songs of 2012.” The entire album also earned iTunes’ “Best Breakthrough Pop Album of 2012” honor. Chris has toured extensively throughout the world, with both with his band The White Tie Affair and as a solo artist, sharing the stage with mega artists like Lady Gaga, Cyndi Lauper, the B-52’s, Andy Grammer and Olly Murs. He has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Access Hollywood and E! News and has been featured in Billboard magazine, US Weekly and Entertainment Weekly.
I got to talk to Chris about his on-going journey as a hard-working singer and songwriter as well as about the important lessons he learned when he was just starting out in the music business. He also shared some words of wisdom with emerging artists about how they can find a solid support team to help them accomplish their goals and advance their music careers.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Chris. How did you first get started in music?
I always loved music, but I didn’t realize how obsessed I was with it until I was about 14. I was always really into sports. Because I have always been a dreamer, I always wanted to take everything to the next level, so I thought for a while I would be a pro athlete. I always knew I didn’t want a normal 9-5, even when I was really young. I looked at my parents, aunts and uncles and didn’t think their life looked like fun. It was always in me to do something beyond that.
Eventually, I decided that playing sports wasn’t my thing. But I always loved music and had always listened to it. After I broke my collarbone playing soccer, I begged my parents for a guitar and just dove completely into music, almost blindly. I didn’t get lessons. I would just sit in my room and emulate the artists I was listening to at the time. I started a band, and we didn’t have a singer, which segued into me deciding to sing and play guitar. And as we went along, I realized my singing was getting better and better.
After a while, this local band asked me to sing for them. They were a pretty established band that played shows and actually made money, and I decided I would give it a shot. As soon as I accepted that, the experience really exposed what I was supposed to be as a live performer. I was in that band for a couple years, and I really enjoyed it, but they played mostly covers, and I felt there was something missing. So, I started writing my own songs.
I started realizing that it was the songs which were key, not the live performance. I discovered that it wasn’t about how well you could play guitar, it was about how great the songs were; the songs were what people went home with after seeing you perform. I fell in love with songwriting, which changed everything.
A couple years later, I had a record deal with my band and was on tour and recording. But locally, I couldn’t find people who were as dedicated as I was. We would rehearse four times per week, and I would still ask people in the band if they could give more. I always felt like I was pushing my band mates too hard, and I actually thought there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want it as much as I did. I just wanted whatever “it” was more than anyone else.
I grew up in Northwest Indiana. And when you grow up in a small town – especially when you meet people from out of town and are trying to be someone who is larger than life – you tend to gravitate towards a city that is larger than you. At the time, I would say the bands I was in were from Chicago, because it gave people an easier frame of reference. When I started White Tie Affair and put together all the social media, I put Chicago as our location, because I think that’s where I wanted to be at the time.
I think that tendency is just part of being a dreamer, too. For example, when you look at someone’s online profile, it will often say they are from a certain place they really want to be, rather than where they actually are. They put it out there in the world, and sometimes it comes true. I did the same thing. I knew I wanted something, but I didn’t know how I was going to get it. I just tried everything I could.
I had played in a bunch of local bands and had a song idea for a song called “Mr. Right.” And a friend of mine heard it and said, “I think this is a really new sound – something different that hasn’t been heard before.” I went home and recorded a demo of it and put it on the Internet and started a band called The White Tie Affair. At first, I didn’t put up any photos. My friend made up a fake picture of three silhouettes, even though the band was originally just me. Everyone else was throwing up pictures and showing the world what they looked like, but I didn’t. And I just put up one song on my webpage. Overnight, it exploded on its own.
That just proves that you don’t always know when you have something people want.
Yes. I never realized it before. I had been chasing shows and trying to find every A&R person I could, from every label I wanted to get signed to. And I put out one thing that the labels considered good or great, and they came to my doorstep. My life really did change overnight. Four labels were suddenly all trying to sign me at once.
And you went to Epic, and then you and the label put the band together?
I was in another band at the time and didn’t want them to know I was starting a side project. I had showed them the song that ended up being the first song from The White Tie Affair. And everyone in the band said it wasn’t any good, and they didn’t think it was a sound they wanted to have, even though I really liked it. That was why I originally didn’t put up any pictures. And, of course, the song then did the work on its own. A couple weeks after the song did so well, the other band members came around. That was the first time in my life I had ever had anything like that happen with anything I was doing. And luckily enough, it lasted.
The White Tie Affair did ultimately consist of some of the members from the band I was already in that I brought over with me. But since the photo I had put up was of three silhouettes, when I went to meet with labels initially, I just brought two friends along. I wanted it to be a solo project at first, but then I quickly realized I wanted some other people to form a band. It was almost a split-second decision that I made when I was on the phone with each of the labels and they asked me how many people were in the band.
It wasn’t actually a decision I planned on hanging onto, but the labels agreed with me that it should be a band and convinced me it was the way to go.
And how long was The White Tie Affair’s run?
The album came out through Epic in April of 2008 and then went to radio six months later. The song “Candle (Sick and Tired)” peaked at radio at 22 on the chart in April of 2009. It was another song I wrote that no one liked initially.
But eventually, someone did.
Eventually. Sometimes in these early stages of being an artist, you’re kind of vulnerable. And you trust your peers to tell you if it’s good enough, even when you know and feel it is good. Still, you might write something you think is great and other people don’t agree. And of course, when you’re on a label, you have to please everybody; all people involved need to think a song is good. When I wrote “Candle” and sent it to the label and my manager, and they didn’t even reply back to me about it. A few days later, I followed up and asked if they had heard the song. They told me it was alright, but that I should keep writing.
And I think being an artist is all about that journey. A lot of musicians reading this are likely still in the early phases where they are just looking to get heard and are also trying to find the right people to surround themselves with. They need to find people who will be supportive of what they are trying to do and help them accomplish their goals. How did you figure out how to get management and build a great team?
Today I have a great team. When I started – not to speak ill of anyone – but it just wasn’t the right team for me at all. When everything in your life changes all at once, you gravitate towards people you think you can trust. You don’t know necessarily that they are the right people, because you have no basis for comparison. You don’t know if you have the right lawyer or if you have signed the right deal. You try to find someone you trust and that someone else has trusted before and hope for the best. I ended up finding the right team through making mistakes. I knew they were the right team, because I had gone through some less-than-ideal experiences.
I was definitely looking for people who were as dedicated as I was and who wanted it as much as I wanted it. The people who work with me now definitely want it as much as I do, if not more.
You definitely have a good bunch of people around you now.
So, “Candle” became a Top 30 single. What happened from there? When did the band unwind?
We had some success, which was good. But then the label got a new president in the middle of our radio run. I think it was kind of doomed after that. I didn’t realize it was happening at the time, but the band just slowly fell apart. And because I was in a band and not a solo artist, I couldn’t just pick up and keep going no matter what hit me. When money stopped coming, the other people in the band started to get less interested.
In my opinion, how a band handles being dropped from a label is one of the biggest indicators of whether or not its members are “lifers” or not. It’s easy to be a musician when you’re on a label and have tour support. But the bands that stick it out when there is no label anymore and put real energy into going a new direction are the ones that last for a long time.
Yeah. And my brain went immediately to finding a new direction. I thought there was no chance it could be over until I said it was over. I think the other band members were ready for a different phase in their lives. I think that showed that my gut instinct on them at the beginning was correct. But I chose to bring them with me anyway because I just really wanted someone to go along with me for the ride.
As a solo artist, you released the single “Push Rewind,” which is on a new record that is out now. And you’re selling 15,000 singles per week. I think for most people, it must be difficult to understand what your life is actually like, because they’re not following you every step of the way, aside from reading some interviews and other press about the work you’re doing now. Can you describe your day-to-day?
There isn’t a lot of consistency. I’d say four days per week at least I’m flying somewhere. And they are all early flights, so it’s usually a 4 a.m. wake-up call in whatever time zone I am in. If I’m not flying, I’m driving to get somewhere. I have been doing a lot of morning radio shows and singing at different events. I recently sang the National Anthem at the Denver Nuggets/Lakers game, which was really cool. I’m getting to meet a lot of the radio programmers and the people who listen and win contests. And I perform for them in radio station lounges. My day usually ends with a dinner meeting with someone. And hopefully I make it to sleep by midnight to get up early again.
Lately, it’s been a lot of that, which is incredibly taxing on your body. But once you get on stage or to the place you’re going to perform, you’re just so flattered that people want to play your song and talk about your music.
You’re obviously someone who is really excited to get the opportunity to do what you do. But how do you handle being on a flight four days per week and staying healthy and not feeling overwhelmed?
I’ve always been healthy and in shape, and I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life. I knew it was going to take this much to be where I am. No matter what I have done in my life – whether going to school or working a regular job – I have always felt like I could do more. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much they could actually do if they really wanted to and put their mind to it. You just keep setting the bar higher. As long as you stay healthy and positive, you can’t be brought down.
There are a lot of people out there just trying to get a band going who would love the benefit of your experience. From a business and marketing perspective, what are some of the biggest mistakes you feel you made when you were just starting out? Are there lessons you wished you’d learned earlier in life?
I believe that a lot of things that happened to me were probably just fated to happen. I had no control over them. For example, I couldn’t really avoid losing the support of a label because that label got a new president. I guess I could’ve signed with a different label, but I went with that label initially because the people there really believed in me. The guy who signed me put a lot of work into me. The support was just taken away half-way through the process.
I think the biggest mistake I made early on was trusting a friend to get me a lawyer who ended up getting me a bad deal. I eventually found a lawyer who helped me correct that mistake, but at first it was a really shady deal. I think there are always those people out there who you think you trust, but are actually trying to pull the wool over your eyes and take advantage of you, because they know you are new to the business.
One of the first phone calls I got from a label was from an A&R guy. We didn’t have a manager at the time, and he segued into being our manager. In retrospect, he walked into the perfect situation, because he already had a band that was signed and had a buzz. And because I felt I could trust him, he started managing my old band. I realized later that he had never managed a band before and really didn’t end up adding a lot to the table; he just walked into something that was already set up. And when you’re building a team, you really want to bring on people who can add something that no one else is adding.
However, all these mistakes really planted the seeds for the future.
And I imagine through that process, you learn that you have to be more discerning and need to get to know more people within the music industry. What was your process for vetting your current team and finding solid partners?
I had a lot of meetings set up in August 2011. After The White Tie Affair broke up, I actually took a lot of time off. I had been working like I am working now for quite a few years. And I got something back from it, but I really didn’t feel like I had really achieved anything. I met with some managers and other people here and there, because I knew my entire team was really not working. But I just didn’t feel a spark with any of the people I met.
I was living in San Diego at the time and was driving up to L.A. to do some surfing. I got a call from my business manager at the time, and he asked if I was interested in a manager. He said he had a guy who was interested in talking to me. The fact that he sought me out really appealed to me. He had talked to a friend of mine who I had been co-writing songs with and had heard my name. And he looked me up and really liked the songs from The White Tie Affair. Once we met, we immediately clicked. I knew he believed in me and saw what people are starting to see now with my solo project. He saw I had something special in me in just an hour of hanging out together. I had meetings with giant managers and other people set up, but I wanted to go with the guy who understood me and was just as crazy as I am. Because, I realize it’s pretty insane to think you can essentially take over the world.
Well, and I congratulate you on being part of the one-percent of people who get as far as you have. Of course, I guess as an artist, you are always looking to how you can be even better. I firmly believe that Chris Martin of Coldplay might scratch his head and wonder how he can become Bono. I’m not sure who Bono aspires to be. But you’re definitely in the upper echelons.
Thank you. It’s really been an interesting road. When I start to talk about the past, I realize it really has been a while. It’s been six years since I put out that very first song that got all the attention.
A lot can change in six years or even in a week, which you have experienced.
You are surrounded by kids who are fans, many of who want to do what you have done and have their own careers. Do you have any parting words of advice for them?
I’ve always worked hard at what I’ve done. And I know nothing comes immediately or easily. I think if you want something – no matter what it is – you have to just keep working at it. Time will weed out the people who don’t want it enough and make way for the people who do.
One of the most disturbing things I’ve learned through the process of working with artists to craft bios that, ideally, fully and compellingly capture the spirit of their music and the essence of them as unique individuals is that many of them – and I might even say most of them – have never truly asked a very important question: “Who am I?” And those that have asked that question are often coming up with an answer that is dead wrong … and then building their entire brand around the identity of an imaginary stranger they have created.
Of course, soul searching is not easy for anyone. Many people devote their entire lives pursuing philosophy and determining the reason for their existence and still come up short. And “Who am I?” is an especially bold, nerve-frazzling question for an artist, band or anyone in a creative field to ask, because the answer gets communicated through every recorded song, live performance, Facebook status message update, tweet, email, professional interaction with music industry professionals and personal interaction with fans. (No pressure!)
As an artist, you need to know what your unique brand/identity is and be able to express it in a confident, authentic and consistent voice in order to connect through your music, engage meaningfully with fans and have a successful, long-lasting career. Are you comfortable in your own artist skin? Here are five ideas to consider as you are developing a consistent artist brand, voice and identity.
Tell a story. “Storytelling” is a simultaneously over-hyped and under-utilized branding tool. In the world of business and branding, it is the way you focus the messages you send out around a central theme and create consistency. Your story gives people additional reasons beyond your music to invest in you emotionally and financially, which is why, as a musician, you need to have an interesting narrative that moves forward and grows with you as your career develops. The special story of your personal relationship to music and who you are artistically is concisely summed up by your mission statement, which you will be communicating through every aspect of your website, press pack, social media pages and other marketing pieces. (If you need a refresher course on the topic of your mission statement, revisit point #1 of the article “5 Tips about Writing Your Own Band Bio.”)
While it is certainly important that your story have a plot, even more important is that it has real conflict and tension and engages fans and potential fans emotionally. That doesn’t mean your story must be wrought with gripping drama, have a clear beginning, middle or end, or feature an arch nemesis (and if it does, you probably want to leave him/her out of your self-promotional process). But it should have a theme. For example, did you discover you wanted to become a professional musician while you were struggling through medical school/law school/clown college? Tap into that. How does your music reflect that moment of change, and how did that turning point in your story shape your journey as an artist? People make their biggest decisions with their heart (or “gut,” or whatever you’d like to call it) rather than with their head, so when you tap into others’ emotions with your story, you compel them to not only learn more about you but also spread the word to others about your music. It goes without saying that your story also needs to be authentic and credible, as people are more likely to respond to you when they feel you come from an ethical and honest place.
If the concept of telling your story terrifies you, the good news is, if you write and perform music, you are already a storyteller. Narrative is the way all of us make sense of the world around us and our experiences so we can create memories that piece together the diverse and ongoing events of our lives; so, even if you were not a “creator,” telling stories is innate to the human experience. Relax, let your story flow and you will unlock a huge opportunity to connect with your audience on a very deep level.
Keep all your media and marketing materials consistent. When putting together official websites, album covers, Facebook fan pages and press packs, many artists let their creativity take over and forget that one of the most important aspects of branding and voice is consistency. Throwing every idea you ever have and every photo you ever take out into the universe without considering how it will contribute to your career aspirations and business plan will just cause mass confusion. Sometimes consistency can feel repetitive and constrictive, especially when you’re repeating the same words, images, color schemes and ideas over and over again. But it is necessary. Business experts will tell you over and over again how in order to be perceived as professional, your Facebook fan page needs to match your website, which needs to match your Twitter account, ReverbNation or SoundCloud page or anywhere else you’re presenting yourself and your music online. And this is absolutely true.
But why? The way fans and others experience you needs to be consistent in order for them to understand who you are and feel comfortable in the space you’re creating for them. Whether fans are visiting your official website or holding your physical album in their hands, each page, piece of artwork and blurb needs to be clearly-identifiable as yours, with a specific look, feel and style that ties in directly to your identity and speaks to them in a way that only you can. You need to use the same fonts, colors, images, backgrounds, page layout and voice in everything you put out into the world, even newsletters, email and promotional posters for your gigs. When fans feel comfortable in the space you’ve created, they will be more likely to click through the pages of your website, listen to your music and watch your videos, without you having to pressure them.
Do you want to test out what you have? Gather up all your artist collateral – your press pack, website, album(s), Facebook page, Twitter profile, anything and everything – and ask yourself some questions: Are the visual design elements – colors, fonts, photos, images, etc. – the same across platforms and media? Is your mission statement clearly visible and the same in all places? Which messages and values is it conveying about your identity as an artist? Are these messages consistent with the type of artist you want to be? If you looked at all your artist materials, knowing nothing about yourself, would you be able to describe your fans? Does what you talk about on social media align with what you hope to communicate through your music and your own personal values?
Listen to feedback from your fans … but NEVER betray your authentic self. You have likely (at least partially) chosen a career as a performer because you want to entertain and move others through your music. Thus, it’s very hard to ask that “Who am I?” question without considering who others want you to be; a portion of your brand has to be shaped by your fans, because your growth as an artist partially depends on them.
I often hear artists say that they don’t understand or even like the type of people that like their music. While certainly we, as musicians sometimes have to embrace fans in unexpected places and follow the saying “beggars can’t be choosers” in order to make a living at our craft, we cannot abandon our core identity. If you don’t believe in what you are presenting – and if it doesn’t square with your principles and the type of music that truly inspires you – you’re not going to enjoy your job. If you don’t understand or openly dislike your fans – who are ready, willing and able to love you – your disdain will come through in your music, your marketing materials and your professional and personal interactions, and no one – not even those fans you don’t like – will want to invest energy or money in you. (And if any of what I have just said rings true to you, it’s time to take a step back and either make an effort to get to know and appreciate your fans or rethink your passion for music.)
So, certainly, listen to your fans and create music, products and experiences that speak directly to them. But always stay true to your mission statement and be the authentic “You”-brand you that you claim to be.
Silence the noise. You hear some version of this statement all the time: “You have to stand out above the noise in order to get your music heard.” But most people don’t understand what this statement really means and attempt to sing more loudly and more often than everyone else, believing that is what will get them ahead and set them apart from the hordes of talented professional musicians vying for attention in an intensely-packed market. They update their status messages 20 times per day, record a new song every week, send out lengthy newsletters, book three shows per week and indiscriminately email everyone they think might listen to them, cover their story or advance their careers.
While staying active and diligently working hard at your craft through practice, recording and live shows are certainly essential to developing as an artist, standing out and rising above the din is really more about subtraction than addition. Too much noise prevents people from hearing your true voice. We live in an environment where, thanks to the magic of technology, we are always being bombarded by information, even when we are in the comfort of our own homes. Remember that if you feel frantic and overwhelmed as you try to scream above all the other bands out there, your audience is experiencing the same – or even greater – system overload. Pare down your interactions, the language of your emails, the music and videos you release and get really selective about your communication; focus on writing and releasing the best and brightest songs and using the most succinct and meaningful language to promote yourself and communicate to fans. And remember to remove the noise from your own life as well every once in a while by seeking out some solitude, so you can hear your own thoughts, the sound of your own voice and plan your next move.
Know how and when to promote yourself. You may have an amazing band with even more amazing songs. But if no one knows about it, you are not going to have much success moving your career forward. A lot of musicians put their songs up online, sit back and wait for that glorious ‘90s-style moment of “discovery” when an A&R rep or a label head will appear out of the darkness of a tiny bar or coffee shop, tell them they are the future of music and save them from the stormy sea of promotion and business management, finally freeing up all their time to write and perform.
That kind of help is not coming. And even when some help comes, you have to educate yourself about PR and marketing so you can be your own life raft and reach out to others about booking shows, buying your music or becoming a champion for your band. Taking control of your own voice and becoming skilful at self promotion is the only way to build a sustainable career, even if you eventually seek or get support from outside forces. Remember that everything you do to promote yourself should stem from your mission statement (which of course stems from your relationship to your music), so get clear on that first. From there, you can steadily build out the other elements of your press kit, such as your bios, testimonials and press clips.
There is a very fine line between bragging and promoting, and you have to learn how to walk along it. Just remember, it is always better to push your brand than not. You will learn – often through trial, error and the responses you get – when you have gone too far … or not far enough.
Developing your own voice and brand as an artist is an on-going process that will continue for as long as you make music. But if you are fully present in each moment and aspect of your career, it will emerge naturally and help you navigate each challenge and triumph.
Julia L. Rogers is the Editor in Chief of MusicianCoaching.com. She is a classically-trained musician, published author, journalist and a contributing music writer at Bitch magazine. She also writes about business strategy, social media and emerging technology for corporate clients, including The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur and American Express. She was previously a grant writer and development/marketing strategist for several New York City-based non-profit Arts organizations and has written business development materials and produced online media for a variety of small technology companies. As a songwriter, cellist, bassist, singer and pianist, Julia plays out regularly in New York City in various original projects. She has been working with MusicianCoaching.com since 2009.
The need for today’s artists to develop savvy, creative self-marketing skills in order to make a living was big in music business news this week as Lil Wayne’s new album Tha Carter IV sold record numbers on iTunes in its first week and music journalists discussed the value of remixes for emerging artists. Also, artists won a big battle as the European Union (EU) came close to a decision on the extension of coverage by International Music Copyright Law.
Lil Wayne Proves Business Sense is Critical to Selling Rap Albums
Lil Wayne’s long-awaited Tha Carter IV album exploded onto the U.S. album chart last week, coming in at #1 with a 964,000 unit sales debut. The album was the second-biggest seller of the year, coming in close behind Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, which sold 1.1 million in its first week when it released in early June. Wayne’s accomplishment is even more notable because he chose not to release on Amazon, thus decreasing his overall sales opportunities. He also set a new one-week iTunes record by selling 300,000 on that platform.
While Wayne did not reach his 1 million-unit personal best, achieved with Tha Carter III in 2008, he beat out the Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne, which came out at the height of the summer record sale season and only sold 436,000 copies. While industry experts agree that record sales are no longer the main indicator for how good an artist is, numbers do still count; and many feel that Lil Wayne’s ability to self market and sell his own music has been a huge factor in his success.
Lil Wayne is the CEO of his own record label, Big Money, and he has a hand in marketing himself and other artists on his label. But according to the Global Grind website, others note that he will need to do even more to continue to sell albums, especially in the rap and hip hop genre, which, more than any other area of music has been hit particularly hard as the music industry becomes more and more digital. Being a talented rapper alone no longer brings in big money; rap artists have had to branch out and cross over into other businesses in order to stay relevant and grow their brands. For example, Jay-Z is co-owner of the New Jersey Nets, CEO of Roc Nation, owner of Ace of Spades liquor company, co-director of Budweiser and investor in a line of hair products and several clubs as well as being a real estate developer. And without diversifying, his hiatus from recording his own music might have pushed him into obscurity.
Rap music has long been associated with “living large” and making money. And while Lil Wayne has proven he can sell records without the help of a huge label, some feel that in order to continue his upward trend, he will have to up the ante with his marketing tactics, possibly capitalizing on his interest in skateboarding (which appeals to his younger fan base) by branching out into the clothing and accessories market, or, since he just learned to play the guitar, designing a line of guitars that caters to his style of music.
The Beastie Boys and Others Uncover the Value of the Remix
Recently, Major Lazer took on the Beastie Boys’ “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” and remixed it as a dance-hall-style song that takes it far from its original state. And this is just one of seven remixes featured on the new Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 album. Leah Collins of the Montreal Gazette asks, aside from giving fans of an artist something more to collect and buy, what is the value of remixes?
First of all, remixing can help an artist reach a new audience; an artist can reshape the song so it has a place in a club, on the radio, or so it gets the attention of an elusive blogger. It can also just give a musician the opportunity to play with a piece of music and make a new form of art. And for a new or emerging artist, remixing can be particularly important because it can help that artist build his/her name, build a community and become more skilled as a musician.
And Major Lazer isn’t the only artist remixing. Ian Swain, who DJs and produces under the moniker “Pho” and also works as half of the dance-hall duo Bonjay used remixes of indie rock hits – including TV on the Radio’s “Staring at the Sun” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Maps” – to build his profile. Swain said, “Putting up those early tunes [and remixing something like ‘Maps’] … was a way that, even though we hadn’t really developed into writing our own material … getting our name out there.”
And he added, “If you’re a band, you cut your teeth doing covers, developing your sound. It’s where you figure out what’s unique about what you do … Remixing is pretty similar in that, when you’re starting out, it’s a great way to hone your style and garner some interest in what you’re doing.”
Besides helping emerging musicians grow artistically and increase their fan bases, doing remixes of popular songs can even in some cases help an artist build relationships with the more well-known artists whose songs they choose, which can lead to new opportunities and wider exposure.
The European Union (EU) Extends Copyright Protection by 20 Years
Musicians could win longer copyright protection of their work abroad as early as next week, thanks to a big decision by the EU which will help make European copyright laws more similar to laws in the United States. For years, artists like Paul McCartney and Cliff Richard have fought to increase the length of time musicians’ work was protected in Europe beyond 50 years as they faced their protection running out within their own lifetimes. If all goes as planned, recordings in Europe will be under copyright for 70 years, making distribution of musical works without permission before this time period expires illegal.
Although some countries are still opposed to this change, industry spokespeople feel that this extension will be made a reality after ministers from EU countries vote on the issue in Brussels on Monday. The decision will also bring extra royalties for major labels Universal, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and EMI. The issue of copyright protection has become even more important worldwide in the past year, as global music sales fell 9 percent, a decline linked directly to widespread piracy problems; according to IFPI, 19 out of every 20 music tracks downloaded from the internet are obtained illegally.
IFPI’s CEO Frances Moore also said new copyright laws in Europe would hopefully help make building a career easier for emerging and independent artists: “Extending the term of protection to 70 years would narrow the gap between Europe and its international partners and improve the conditions for investment in new talent.”
In the U.S., music copyright lasts for 95 years after recording, whereas authors of written works and their estates maintain the rights to their creative works 70 years after their deaths.
Chris Castle is an attorney with Christian L. Castle Attorneys specializing in issues surrounding the traditional music industry, content-based technology and public policy. With offices in L.A. and San Francisco, he represents artists, producers, songwriters, record labels, music publishers, film studios and technology companies. He got his start in the music industry as a professional musician, working and playing with artists including Long John Baldry, Yvonne Elliman and Jesse Winchester and many others. Chris is an MBA/JD of the Anderson Graduate School of Management and the UCLA School of Law and is a magna cum laude graduate of UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Prior to founding his own firm in 2004, he was of counsel to Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp in L.A. and to Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto. He has also held several senior business affairs positions in the music industry.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Chris and talk about some important, current music-related legislation and how it will affect the music industry as well as some advice he has for DIY artists that want to get involved in managing their own rights.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me, Chris. From the perspective of someone that knows digital distribution, music supervision and record deals as they relate to legal policy, which items are currently pending that you think will have the greatest impact on musicians going forward?
In the last year or so, the penny has kind of dropped in the U.S., the UK and France, though what is happening in U.S. Congress is most relevant for this conversation. There are certain things they need to do about regulating some of the bad actions that are going on online. And I don’t mean going after individual users, because all the laws you need to go after individual users are already in place. I’m talking about going after the people who make the big money from piracy online and have very involved structures by which to do that, also known as “rogue sites.” That includes search engines that don’t filter obvious piracy sources and sell advertising that supports pirate sites.
In the last Congress, Senators Leahy and Hatch introduced the first rogue sites bill (the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act) that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a unanimous vote with all members present late in the session. Chairman Leahy introduced a successor to that bill called the Protect IP Act, which has been passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is about to be introduced in the House.
The legislation is bitterly opposed by Google and Google is bringing its full lobbying weight to bear on stopping it, no doubt due to the financial losses staring them in the face. Because it’s hard to come right out and say they want to support theft and that they don’t care about musicians, film makers, songwriters, actors, grips and directors, Google attacks the solution that Congress is endorsing—of course, there is no effective solution that Google does like.
You can argue about unintended consequences when it comes to these rogue sites bills. But what these bills do is recognize that there are some real structural problems with the Internet that encourages piracy and inhibits a true market from developing. You have a lot of incentives for people to do really bad things. I think that realization on the part of the Congress has been a big step forward toward establishing market rules online that will help artists be successful.
The other realization that goes along with the recognizing the structural problems online is that we’re not seeing pirates in the historical sense of what we’re used to.
I’ve been in the business for a long time, and so have you. Online piracy is not some guy with a duplication plant in Santa Ana who deals a little coke on the side. Now it’s companies like Google. Google is very much involved with selling advertising on these rogue sites and splitting the profits with the pirates (made evident in the April House IP subcommittee hearing). And it’s like that great line in The Untouchables: “Everybody knows where the booze is, Mr. Ness.” It’s not a question of whether people at Google know what they’re doing, because they clearly do know. There are at least five cyberlockers with Google advertising that consistently are in the top 100 websites in the world. It’s just that they’re making so much money at it that they don’t want to give it up.
On a more positive note, I think we are finally seeing a real upswing in companies like Topspin, etc. There’s a site called Patronism.com, which is a cross between Facebook and Kickstarter for artists. And of course then there’s Kickstarter, where artists are able to go out and raise money – crowd funding that actually does work. You’re starting to see resources appear online where artists can get a pretty long way down the path without having to get into 360 deals, etc. early on in their careers. I think that’s encouraging.
And then the next problem after that, which nobody has really cracked yet is the lock on radio that major labels have. I don’t if anybody is ever going to solve that. But there are a lot of ways to get to the fan now that don’t involve telecommunications-related mass media.
What is your assessment of the class action lawsuit that has been brought against the major labels for digital payment issues?
The class action is a follow on to what’s referred to as the “Eminem Case” even though Eminem isn’t really a part of it himself. It’s the case where people are saying that the royalties for digital have been miscalculated under specific contracts and industry practice, and that it should’ve been a 50-50 split vs. a royalty rate.
First of all, I don’t think the class actions are necessarily going to be the best vehicle for addressing this issue because mostly because of what class action lawsuits require in order to go forward; you have to have common facts, common interests and a bona fide class representative, etc.
It’s also important for artists to understand that if a class is certified in one of these cases (like the one against Universal) then unless artists expressly opt out of the class, they are bound by the decision. Which is nice if the class wins, but not so nice if the class loses and you never not your day in court.
I think it is going to be very hard to certify a meaningful class because, not because of anything nefarious, but because the artist deals are not the same. For example, with Eminem, it was really a production deal, not an direct artist deal. So, if they had tried to bring that as a class action – and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had thought about that – I don’t know how it would’ve worked out, because there are relatively few production deals compared to direct artist deals.
I would also point out that there’s a bit of tree-ring aging that goes along with analyzing the relevant contracts for the class. I used to work at A&M, and I can tell you from having gone through many years of looking through old contracts in the file room that there were distinct points in time when the way things were addressed changed on many of the forms. And I think that’s not just true at A&M; it applies to all labels that have been around for a while.
If you’re talking about contracts that were entered into after about 2000 or so – when the labels started clearing large quantities of their catalogues for digital – most of the time business affairs people went through an amendment process that was very similar to what they went through with CDs. In fact, some people may have used the CD amendments as something of a model for digital.
If you were an artist they wanted to put on iTunes or through Pressplay or MusicNet/MediaNet and your contract was messy on the digital exploitation rights, they would go to you as an artist and offer you a more or less favored nations deal. Artists would have to sign those amendments or they didn’t get on iTunes. Most of those deals were fairly generous from a label point of view, usually something like paying the album rate for digital single tracks with no packaging and no new media deductions as the standard. Over time, the demand for back catalog on digital services was so intense that people may have gotten sloppy with getting these amendments, and that’s who the class action lawyers will be looking for.
The artists who are going to have the most play in this kind of litigation are probably going to be the people who signed before about 1990. That’s a pretty deep catalog. Those guys might be able to piece together a class that can get certified. But I really think it’s going to be tough.
This is not to say that a significant catalog artist shouldn’t pick up the phone and call their old label to see about renegotiating their old deals for digital. This is the kind of thing that works well when combined with an audit claim or a 35-year termination.
While I’m going over current topics, what do you think will be the ultimate impact of the publishers settling with YouTube?
That’s a very interesting piece. I will tell you that there are a lot of stakeholders in that situation that read about it for the first time in the newspaper. They were somewhat surprised and are unclear as to what the basis of that decision is.
If you read the press release from the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) – and that’s the only thing written I’ve seen so far – it looks as if the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and a handful of publishers were party to the class action lawsuit brought by the Premier League and others against Google that is a companion case to the Viacom litigation. It appears that these publishers released their claims. Viacom is still litigating their case and the class action is going forward, apparently without the NMPA and these publishers.
The short answer is, I can’t really tell what was dismissed and the settlement agreement has not been posted. But it looks to me is that the NMPA, which doesn’t own any copyrights, dismissed their claim against Google, whatever it was, as did the specific publishers mentioned in the HFA press release. But that’s only four or five publishers. So, I’m not really sure what it all means. And then the HFA is also offering a license on undisclosed terms that looks like a standard HFA opt-in structure. So, it says, “If you want to grant a license to YouTube prospectively, let us know.” HFA haven’t posted the terms but would have to tell any HFA publisher principal who wanted to participate.
I have heard that YouTube has what I would call a close to pathological level of secrecy about the terms of their deals. Like anyone in the music business can keep a secret. That’s kind of funny.
I guess it just doesn’t surprise me that the specifics of the deal have not been made public. But in this country, I don’t see how that’s going to stay quiet for very long, because that will have to go out with all the opt-ins. They will likely not say, “Opt into this deal, but we’re not going to tell you what the terms are” however much Google would like that.
Plus, HFA acts as an agent for their publisher principals, so they’ll have to disclose the terms.
What appears to have happened is that the publishers just walked away from the lawsuit, let the past go uncompensated and agreed to a deal prospectively for the future. I don’t really think that’s so great, personally. I don’t think it’s a good idea to sue somebody and then drop your case for no compensation. If you’re going to go to the trouble of suing someone, you should stay in.
Google seems to like its class actions as anyone who has followed Google Books or Google Buzz will know. Google likes to get rid of liability through what appears to be a “prepackaged class action” that limits the amount Google has to pay and gives Google a prospective license. That angle failed miserably in the Google Books case because they tried to make a prospective license part of the class action settlement. (Class actions are designed to deal with retrospective harm, not prospective licenses.) But what they failed to do by settlement they maybe can accomplish by prospective contract.
Does this mean that a large number of publishers have walked away from potential performance royalties? I don’t know whether or not ASCAP or BMI had deals in place, but it seems there would be performance royalties out there somewhere that haven’t yet been claimed.
This situation is really about sync licenses, not performances.
It’s interesting, because I interviewed an artist named David Choi, who has 95 million upload views on YouTube. And he said he never got a single check as a result from his PRO.
And that doesn’t surprise me. The YouTube people are interesting, because they are sending checks. When I talk to label people, I hear that the YouTube checks have gotten a lot bigger if you’re a major. But paying off people who can sue them is the way Google has approached many aspects of their business, including the recent payment to the U.S. Government over Google’s sale of advertising for illegal drugs.
Frankly, until iTunes had been around for a couple years, iTunes approached it similarly; if you were an independent, you got a reduced rate on your wholesale price. That didn’t last very long and iTunes has been great with independents ever since. But YouTube and Google have approached their business model the same way.
I was at a NARM panel a few months ago in L.A. where Sami Valkonen, who is now the international music licensing person for Google Music (whatever that is, because no one knows what that program is yet) confirmed that Google approaches it that way in front of a room full of indies. He said, “All I have to do is go out there and get a few of the big guys. If I get two or three of those, the rest will fall in line.” The indies in the room had a good laugh about that later.
But that’s the way Google thinks of it. So, as far as Google is concerned, if you’re an independent artist that doesn’t have a big label supporting you or someone to whom they’ve paid a lot of money for a license, they’re not that interested in negotiating with you and want you to take what is often called the “hillbilly deal.”
There is also a kind of unholy alliance that goes on in this kind of situation that could explain why an artist wouldn’t get a check: When YouTube makes a deal with a major, there’s an assumption that they will account. So, they’ll pay the major label. And I think the early checks were relatively pretty large – in the $30-$50 million range. Part of that was a settlement, and part was an advance on the catalog. If you are a major, it won’t take you that long – even at the absurdly low rate that YouTube seems to be paying – to recoup that advance at the label level.
So when the advance is recouped Google have to actually start paying checks again. Also, along the way, they have to render statements to the label that show the activity, because the label then is supposed to credit that portion of the advance attributable to the artist’s share of those performances to the artist.
And I’m sure that hazy accounting gets very interesting there, because you wonder if they are really cutting checks for seven cents.
And that’s the thing. YouTube has an incentive to send just enough not to get in trouble. And the labels don’t really want to deal with accounting that is too good, because the worse the accounting, the less money they actually have to pay out to third parties, like artists. And those third parties include producers too. I guess there might be some video directors that would get a percentage too, though not many.
Hazy accounting is nothing new in the record business. Because this YouTube lawsuit is not about performance royalties, rather about synchronization fees, does this mean that people walked away from all the synchronization fees they were owed prior to this settlement and then struck a deal going forward?
It looks that way. But if you read that HFA press release, it’s not clear whether or not there is any money being paid. And if I’m Google, I don’t think I’d want to pay those guys a penny, because as far as I’m concerned, I won the case and this appeal business is just periphery. Google even tells governments throughout the world, “Oh no, we won the YouTube case.” Even though it’s on appeal.
So, for them to pay money to anyone who is still in on the appeal to knock them out is probably not something they want to do, because they don’t want to set the precedent. So, I would doubt whether any money actually changed hands at all. And the license is prospective.
That’s amazing. As much as all this policy interesting, it doesn’t trickle down to the DIY artists, because they’re not necessarily getting paid now, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be paid then either.
That’s right (unless you get your little share of advertising that Google sells on your You Tube “partner” page). And here’s the dynamic that’s also at work out there that’s the counter balance to the good news: they try to turn artists against their record companies, music publishers, and unions. The reason? Google would much prefer dealing with artists who were not able to strike back and as much as artists may have a bone to pick with labels, publishers and unions, that’s a bone better picked in private. Does anyone really believe that Google has their best interests at heart, or is it more likely that Google would prefer their artists served up alone, powerless and broke?
What do all these artist organizations have in common? They are places where artists come together to bargain collectively, because it gives them greater leverage. And of course, these companies don’t like that. Lawrence Lessig, the academic who has had a huge influence on Google and its executive team, has a real problem with the societies.
When largely non-union companies like Google who have no experience with collective bargaining at all try to undermine the artists and go around their representatives and natural allies, they undermine the one last bastion artists and creators have to stand up to people.
So, Google would like to avoid anything that doesn’t scale, and they would love to avoid the labels, the publishers and the societies. And it should not be overlooked that Google no doubt sees itself as occupying the space of these “intermediaries” because Google wants to organize the world’s information whether the world likes it or not.
Which organizations does that include, specifically?
ASCAP, BMI, AFM, AFTRA, etc. To further illustrate my previous point, something came up the other day. Sirius is going around trying to make deals with indie labels to pay them their artists’ share and union share of money that would otherwise go to SoundExchange, which is another organization that is viewed as a middle man. Well, that completely screws the artist and completely screws the unions. And these unions have a side deal with the majors that even if the majors did do a direct license for works that would otherwise be licensed through SoundExchange, the majors will not take that money and apply it against un-recouped balances.
The reason these companies are going to the indies is because they can’t get any traction with the major labels, because the major labels already have agreements in place not to enter into these types of deals. So, how is SiriusXM your friend at that point above your union or your label? They aren’t. That’s not to say you don’t ever have problems with your unions or your label, but that’s your business. What Sirius, etc. is trying to do is turn the labels against the artists and the artists against the labels. And it’s a constant push and pull that really just ends up with huge companies like Sirius and Google making more money by reducing what the creators get.
My problem with YouTube is that when the day comes when they only have content that they’re authorized to have and when they’ve paid for everything that’s already on there, then we can talk about how great it is for artists. There’s a reason why there are no music deals for the Google Music service: No one trusts them. That’s the bottom line, and they’re really trying to come back from that.
Once this Protect IP Act starts in the House, I think it’s going to be a real eye opener in terms of just how deep this goes.
And what’s at the crux of the Protect IP Act?
Are you familiar with cyber locker sites like RapidShare?
Yes. You can basically Google anything.rar and you get it. Megaupload is another one.
Correct. The way those guys make money is they charge for faster access but also publish advertising served by third parties like Google. So, if you have an account with Megaupload and set up a mirror site as an individual, Megaupload will reward you for the number of uploads and downloads with points that actually become money at some point that come through your account: Web 2.0 for pirates.
I never understood why people were so willing to upload on there when there wasn’t any take. I didn’t realize there was an incentive.
Megaupload actually writes a check. And this is all on the Megaupload site. If you look at the memberships, it’s all laid out there. It’s pretty sanitized, so they never tell you what you’re being paid to do, except download from your account or upload to them. They have a direct commercial relationship with their user.
But then, in addition to that – and this is where the real money is – if you have a mirror site, they give you a link back to the locker that has the content in it. What you’re hosting on the mirror site is just the link; you don’t host the file itself. The file is on Megaupload. When a user goes to the mirror site and clicks on that link that takes you to the Megaupload site, a popup will come up. It usually comes up twice, and a user can dismiss it to get directly to the site. If you look at that popup, it has ads on it. And those ads are very often served by Google AdSense. If you want to learn more about this, go to popuppirates.com, which is a site that’s written by a friend of mine named Ellen Seidler, who is an independent filmmaker. Ellen has researched this system into the ground, and she even has videos about it. I didn’t fully understand the concept myself until I saw Ellen’s site.
But, Google then splits the money with the pirate. And Google will tell you, “Oh no. We verify all these accounts.” They do, but they allow you to change the URL once it’s approved. This same kind of functionality is what got the attention of the U.S. Attorney in the ongoing Google drugs case and resulted in a $500 million fine and now a shareholder derivative lawsuit for a very narrow category of their Adsense business.
So when the cyberlocker asks for an account, Google Adsense has a human check out the URL where Google is told the advertising will be served (which is not the ultimate URL that the cyberlocker intends to use), make sure that the fake site complies with their supposed rules, all a bit nod nod wink wink if you read the Google drugs plea agreement. They give the cyberlocker a code, so Google knows who to pay the ad revenue on this site, they know who he is and know who to pay based on what happens, whether it’s a click-through or an impression. Up to this point, they are just like all the other ad serving companies.
The difference is that once the cyberlocker gets the account set up, with most of the other companies, the cyberlocker change the URL without going through the same process over again. That would catch any shenanigans.
With AdSense, you can change the URL after you have been approved, and they typically don’t check the new URL. So, if I’m Megaupload and set up a website “Dimitri’s Kittens and Sunshine,” I get my AdSense account and then the next day, I can change it to Megaupload. And nobody at Google will say, “My goodness. There sure are a lot of kittens and sunshine on Dimitri’s account.” They just serve the ads and make the money.
And it’s a lot of money. They’re in pretty deep trouble right now for selling ads. They were selling ads for illegal drugs that were being sold online – like Canadian drugs, etc. – and the DOJ just announced that Google paid the biggest forfeiture in US history–$500 million. So, if just that little narrow slice of the advertising pie is $500 million, imagine what they make from copyright infringement. It’s really a lot of money. And everyone gets paid except the creator. And that’s what Protect IP is really about.
Is there anything the little guy can do?
The thing the little guy can do with all this legislation going on, that’s really more important than anyone might think, is call their congressman, particularly if their congressman has a leadership opposition (like Ohio, which is where Boehner is from) or you live someplace that people don’t associate with the music business, i.e., outside the centers.
Congressmen need to hear about it from everybody because it’s a jobs issue. The fundamental question is why should we treat bad behavior differently online than offline? No one would question an artist’s right to call 911 if their car was being stolen, but some people would like to keep the artist from being able to call 911 if their life’s work is being stolen. That distinction will not stand.
There’s an impression in the Congress, which is validly obtained but not actually valid. People think that if they don’t have a big entertainment center in their district, they don’t have to listen. But that’s not true. Members like Lamar Smith (Austin congressman who is chair of House Judiciary) understands this very well and has been a great champion of artist rights even though he’s not from New York.
We had some artists from Austin who did a video about what has happened to them, and the voices could literally have been from any part of our country. Members need to hear from their constituents about why this legislation is important to them. That’s not going to make you any money in the short run, but it definitely does help the cause.
On a certain level, we’re all in the same boat, from the big studios, to the little filmmakers, to the major record company, to the independent label, artist or songwriter. There is one copyright law for everyone and it is not being respected.
It’s not like the big guys are suddenly going to get rich if this bill passes. It’s going to start the process of establishing market rules online. The Brits have done it, the French have done it; more and more countries are doing this kind of thing.
The other thing people can do is do things like what Ellen Seidler did and keep track of their experiences with the DMCA. Eventually there will come a time when people are going to say that the DMCA just doesn’t work. There are two pieces to Ellen’s site. One is her analysis of how this advertising thing works. The other is a discussion about her experiences with sending out DMCA notices, particularly to Google, and the singular non-responsiveness of these people.
Also, go to SoundExchange and make sure you’re registered. If you’re a songwriter, make sure you’re with ASCAP and BMI and keeping track yourself of where your music is used. And be respectful of other people’s rights, so when the time comes for you to step up, you can say you tried to do it the right way.
Finally, only let people post your music on licensed sites. The individual artist has to take some responsibility for this too. If the purpose of DIY is to start controlling more and more of your world, what goes along with that is enforcing your rights. And when people start enforcing rights on their own, lawmakers need to understand that going up against the power of the Internet mob is really, really hard to do alone.
People of good will can never let the mob win.
To learn more about Chris Castle and the services he provides to the music community, check out the Christian L. Castle Attorneys website.
I recently spoke with Josh Lamstein, a Managing Director of GF Capital. GF Capital a private equity fund focused on investments in media and branded consumer products. I know this seems like an odd interview for a music industry blog but I am often making the comparison of a band or an artist as a start up company and a record label or a publisher as a private equity fund or a venture capitalist. I am hopeful that gaining an understanding from Josh about how he and his fund select start up companies will help us understand how important self starting and building one’s own business is for an artist. For all intents and purposes Josh functions like an A&R person who is looking to invest in companies rather than artists.
Josh thanks as always for your time. If you would, tell me in your own words what your job is about.
My job is to evaluate businesses and industries and to figure out which industries that we want to invest in and within those industries which companies are the most exciting. In practical terms that means doing research on growth rates within an industry, finding out who the entrenched players are within an industry and determining where there might be gaps in their own strategies that could be exploited by smaller companies as GF tends to invest in smaller companies.
Define what a smaller company is in your eyes?
We tend to invest in companies that are 15-50 million dollars of annual revenue and 3-15 million dollars of EBITDA. For media / content oriented companies we focus on Intellectual property (music, video software etc).
Now forgive me because as you know I’m not the guy who brings the macaroni to the Mensa meetings; would you say it’s an apt comparison that your function at GF is similar to that of an A&R executive at a record label or publisher except that you are looking for corporations rather than talent to invest in?
Yes, that’s accurate.
So in layman’s terms, in deference to myself not in deference to the reader, what is it about a corporation or a corporation’s financial health that gets your attention as a possible investment?
Taking a step back- the most important thing, and this is really what our job is, is to assess the management team. So in the parlance of what you are comparing this to our job is assessing the people in the band themselves.
I would guess this would also apply to a band’s employees or band manager or booking agent if we were to continue this analogy further…
Absolutely. Companies are organisms and you need to ensure that the people who are directing this organism are the kind of people who are willing to accept defeat yet keep on going until they find the path to a successful outcome. So we look for…
People with that kind of track record?
People who are willing to eat glass if that’s what it would take to become successful. People who are really driven towards success and excellence in what they do…
So… What we look for in companies in the media industry is a margin profile that is very attractive. Meaning a company of interest to us has gross margins (profit per unit before expenses, overhead etc) that tend to be very high. If the gross margins aren’t high – we want to dig in and understand a bit about why that may be. Then we look underneath that to see if the management of the corporation paying themselves a great deal of money. Are these people driving the success of the business; does that success tie in to their equity value as opposed to their compensation? It is a question of if they are managing in a lean way.
So how much a company would re-invest in its growth would be important to you.
Yes, we tend to look for people who are focused on the long term as opposed to clipping the coupons so to speak.
Tell me about your thoughts about the music business in general right now. You are clearly looking at music and media companies to invest in. Do you see anything (without divulging sensitive information) that you like or models that you think are working right now?
We are interested in a variety of areas. The publishing arena is an area we are interested in and is a good private equity business. Number one, you own the Intellectual property. Two- we don’t have to make tremendous bets on the outcome given that the types of publishing libraries we are looking at, libraries that have a historical track record.
I am going to switch gears for a moment. I know doing what you do people come to you as really new start up companies because you know your way around finance. As I’ve mentioned to you in the past I think most artists and bands are in that situation of being a brand new start up company. Given that, is there any general entrepreneurial advice you could give to bands / artists who in most cases is borrowing or investing their own money to make a product in a high risk business like music? Are there things you have seen that you would have people steer clear of?
In the pure corporate world – the longer you are able to go without taking on a venture capitalist the better it is for your company. A venture capitalist tends to have a very different type of incentive. The VC is really looking for a home run and will run the business as hard as they can to get that home run.
I would guess everyone is looking for a home run – is this a matter of timing does a venture capitalist need this home run by a certain deadline or…
So it tends to be the case that there are many businesses without Venture capital they would perform in a solid if unspectacular way and that’s not appealing to a venture capitalist.
Continuing the baseball analogy is it the difference between reliably making base hits or going for a home run and very possibly striking out? Meaning a venture capitalist will bet more and more risky in many cases than a company would if self funded?
Yes, the venture capitalist portfolio will typically have something on the order of 15-20 companies. Of those 1-2 will be home runs in a good portfolio. The rest will be either complete wipe outs or marginal successes.
So basically a small number of large successes will cover for a lot of misses. That sounds just like a major label.
Another question – is it so that the earlier in a company’s growth cycle that they partner with an investor, the more of a stake that investor is able to take?
That’s correct. In a company you are giving up ownership for an artist I’m not sure how exactly it would translate.
For an artist it could be relinquishing some publishing rights or just a split or percentage with a strategic partner that would be considerably less than if they were able to build their business more on their own. You have nothing to bargain with if you haven’t demonstrated your viability. Josh thanks again for your time.
Dave Hahn is a professional musician and the co-founder of a website called MusicianWages.com. He has done extensive work in music theater, is often called for sight-reading gigs and even spent six months working on a cruise ship. I strongly suggest you check out MusicianWages.com – it is a valuable resource. Dave was nice enough to sit down with me and go over his story and how he makes his living.
So, tell me how you came to be a musician?
I always say that you don’t pick music, the music picks you. You can fight it if you want, but I know, for me, I’ve just always been a musician, and that’s what I was supposed to do. I tried to do a few other things. I have an undergraduate degree in German Literature. I had some jobs for a while. I tried a lot of different things, but I‘ve always been a musician. I started playing professionally at age 13. My brother was a waiter that worked at a restaurant that had a piano, and they started hiring me when I was a teenager to come in and play on the weekends. Then I started playing for theater companies back home and recording for theater companies. I started out as a jazz piano major in college, but I was convinced there wasn’t a practical career choice. I thought I should try to do something else, so that’s when I did other things. But music has always been my main focus. I was diagnosed with cancer five or six years ago and had been messing around as a musician for years. After college, I was in an African reggae band in Chicago, I owned a label for a while, and was working for theater companies. Then I had a day job and decided I didn’t want to do my day job anymore. Then I went out on cruise ships, and when I came back, I realized I didn’t know if I could make a real living at this. Cruise ships are an alternate reality.
We really do have to talk about cruise ships. On the one hand, that’s a gig that everybody thinks they want. I’m told that once you get there it can be a very small ship and a lot of drunk tourists.
I only did six months of that gig, and then I was out of there. The funny thing about me is that my online presence has a lot to do with cruise ships. When I went out on that gig, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought that was unfair to musicians, so I just started writing about it so musicians would know what they were getting into before they got out there. Because the promo stuff the cruise ship agencies put out is all rose-colored glasses. I knew when I was out there I didn’t want to do it again, so I felt free to talk honestly and openly about it. That’s why I started writing the cruise ship blog. It’s been six years since I was out there, and I was only out there for six months; I don’t really know much about the gig. I wouldn’t call myself an expert now. It just happens I wrote a ton about it, and the writings online became what I was known for. That writing online became the cornerstone of Musician Wages when we launched. Now we’ve actually written way more content than that cruise ship blog ever had. To try to keep relevant we’ve brought in people to write for the site. We have a cruise ship agency in San Diego that writes for us now, and sometimes I can find musicians that are working on cruise ships to write for us now. We just want to keep it more relevant now, because I don’t know anything about it anymore.
Where did life take you after the cruise ship experience?
I went back to outside Chicago where I grew up, and that’s where I got diagnosed with cancer. Cancer is obviously a drag. And I’m fine today. I had a type of cancer that is very curable with a 98% cure rate. I had to go through all the rituals of chemo and everything, but once I did that everything was fine. It taught me a good lesson: I have to do with my life what I want to do with my life. Cancer really gave me the wherewithal to say, “I’m a musician. I’m not going to try to get a day job anymore. I’m just going to do this.” So I did. That was really the point at which I said I was going to be a full time musician and make that work somehow.
So how did you build the career you have today? What are the different sources of income?
Theater has always been the main bread winner in my career. I would say right now, 90% of my income comes from sight-reading. I think it’s the most valuable thing I can offer an employer – the ability to walk in and sit down and play anything they put in front of me. It’s really valuable in New York City. There are a lot of guys who do it but there is also a lot of work for sight readers, especially if you have a lot of different styles in your bag you can bring out.
*** Here is an article that details Dave’s Income streams during the recession ***
Do your gigs come from word of mouth at this point?
Being a theater musician is a very specific skill set. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, and I love theater. I’m cool with the music. Musical theater is built from every style out there. You can’t really say that musical theater is one thing or another. I love all the variety. How did I start? It was a lot of work and a little luck just like everything else. When I was back in Chicago, I’d been working in theater for 15 years at that point, and I knew I wanted to get onto the national scene more than the small theater scene I had in my hometown. It has to do with the cruise ship blog actually. Now and then people will contact me through the cruise ship blog and say, “Hey, I’m interested in this gig. Can you give me some more information about it?” One of the guys that contacted me was a bass player for Les Miserables and Cats. He was on the road for 15 years. He contacted me and said he wanted to retire from the Broadway thing and was trying to find options. He thought maybe he could go on a ship and wanted to get information about that. So we had a phone call, and it was about five minutes of cruise ship discussion, and I just said, “No, that’s not an option for you. You shouldn’t do that.” And then it was two hours of me picking his brain about how to get on the road and get jobs on Broadway. I basically said, “I want to do exactly what you’re doing. How do you do it?” He was so nice about it and was a great mentor at that time. He told me to join the union and gave me two names that I should call, and I did that. It’s funny that I had to join the union, because I didn’t have a union gig until years after that. But I think in that theater scene they take you more seriously if you’re in the union.
I called the first guy on the list, was still living in my home town, and said, “Hey, my name is Dave, I’m a keyboard player and looking for work. I just wanted to give you a call and say hi.” He said, “Great, so what have you been doing?” I said I worked on cruise ships for a little while and have been working in the theater scene in Chicago for years and years. And he said, “Great, do you want to go to Taiwan?” And that was the whole phone call. Two weeks later I went to Taiwan, and was playing keyboard on an ad hoc Broadway review show. It was just two weeks and was a great experience. There were a lot of New York people there. And they liked my playing and liked me – two things that are very important. The music director on that gig had gotten offered a national tour, but didn’t want to do it, because the national tour is a really grueling kind of “one-nighter” for nine months. He wasn’t into it, but told them I was great and asked them to hire me, and they did. I got back from Asia on a Wednesday, and I had to be in New York ready to go by that Monday. I had never done anything like that and had no idea what I was doing. But I did it, showed up, and was the standing conductor for the national tour of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. We did nine months in North America. That was a really lucky break in a way. In some ways I also had to show up and show the goods. It took a lot of work to get to that point, but it was the right place at the right time. Once you have a credit like that, it makes it a lot easier to get gigs in the scene. Once I had a director credit for a national tour, it was easier to get a regional gig. A lot of it is word of mouth. You really don’t get gigs in the theater industry unless somebody knows you. I got to know a lot of people on that tour, and they all scattered and went to different regional houses and recommended me to the artistic director there. I worked in Chicago, Virginia, upstate New York, and bounced around as a music director for different regional companies. Eventually I got to a point where I thought I had a pretty good list of credits. I’d also gotten a little tired of traveling around and touring, and I thought, “It’s time to move to New York City and try it with the big dogs.” I moved here, and it did not go well.
It was a long process. As a theater person, for me at least, it can be a long process to move to New York. The thing about theater is that everyone in the country and throughout the world really comes to New York to mine the talent in this town. They hire them for jobs outside of town. It’s actually really hard to stay here. If you’re good you keep getting work and leaving. That was my experience for a year or two. I moved here but I couldn’t stay here, because I kept getting jobs out of town. Then the recession hit, and it was easier to stay here, because nobody was hiring. I got to New York about a month after AIG crashed, and this place was a mess. Nobody was hiring. You couldn’t get a day job, you couldn’t get a temp job, you couldn’t get a waiter job. I just sat around for eight months. I couldn’t find anything. That’s about the time we started Musician Wages. That gave me something to do.
Tell me about the blog, your cruise ship job and Musician Wages. Has blogging about cruise ships helped your career?
Every major job I’ve gotten in the past two years has been directly related to MusicianWages.com.
So you can speak to the benefits of blogging. I tell people all the time, and they think I’m lying.
It’s absolutely true. Musician Wages we started in November of 2008, and it evolved and into a career website for working musicians. We talk about how to make a living, the different gigs we’re taking and what’s worked and what hasn’t worked for us. And other people write for us about musician business-related stuff. We make a real distinction between “musician business” and the “music business.” I am not in the music business I don’t know what the music business is. I don’t have any experience with it. I work in the musician business.
You’re primarily a hired gun. Do you have an independent project or stuff you write you’re pushing and trying to market?
I have some hobby projects. I know this isn’t a popular view in the musician community but what I decided early on was that to make a living as a musician I needed treat this as a business and not just concentrate on what I wanted to do. I don’t always want to go to work, but work makes me money. It would’ve been great to be a rock star, but I would’ve never made a dime because I wouldn’t be a very good rock star.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musician say that out loud.
I know. It’s not a very popular decision in the musician community. I don’t just play what I feel like playing. In fact if I did, I would never make any money and would not have a career. I play what people pay me to play, and I guess I’m lucky because I actually really enjoy doing that. I love showing up and playing whatever people have for me to play. I made a decision early on – and this is probably also very unpopular – that I don’t join bands. If I joined a band, I’d never have a career. I joined bands in college and high school and made $3 a night and a case of beer, and it was fun, but it was also frustrating because we couldn’t get anybody to show up or sell our albums, and I wasn’t making any bread on it. And I thought, I can’t do this if I’m really going to be a professional. Some people can make it work but I’m not one of those guys. I do have some projects. I have two albums out, and never really talk much about them, and they never sell many copies. I did just get a song placed in a movie, which was a lucky break.
How did that happen?
They were searching iTunes. It’s the new Matt Dillon movie, Takers. It’s out in theaters right now. There’s a scene where Hayden Christensen is playing piano, and his buddy proposes to his girlfriend. They needed a cue to fit into that scene, and they searched iTunes and found my album and picked one of the songs from it and contacted me and said they wanted to use it.
Did you do anything with iMixes to load the gun and help you out?
Cameron (Mizell – co-founder of musicianwages.com) helped me out. If you go to the iMix or iTunes page, one of the top iMixes is “Piano Jams” and it has one of my songs in it but that’s not how they found my stuff. I don’t really know, but they must have searched something like “solo ballad piano” and found my album and felt it was perfect. It’s perfect because I’m a non-famous musician with a non-famous recording, and they can plug it in as a sound effect in the movie, and nobody will say, “Oh, well that’s Oscar Peterson’s version of Nearness of You.” That works out great for everybody.
*** Here is an article on how Dave’s song got placed ***
I’m gathering from you that there were a bunch of things that were key in you afloat as a musician.
1. The decision, where you said, “I’m going to do this for a living.”
2. The ability to sight read
3. Having the talent / being well liked
Am I wrong that those four items are linchpins in bringing you to a guy who makes his living playing?
I’d say that’s a pretty good analysis. I think you can’t under-emphasize the third point, the one about being a good hang. People need to like hanging out with you. You need to be a good person and have people want to work with you. That’s who people hire. This business is all word of mouth. The other way to say that is that people hire their friends. It’s about networking, but networking is different in the musician business than it is in something such as selling medical supplies. You really need to be friends with people genuinely. You can’t fake the friendship. You have to be a good person and a good hang for people to hire you.
You can’t really teach that.
No. That’s really important in this business – being kind and genuine to people. As far as other projects go, I work with a singer in Brooklyn. I’m kind of at a point in my career where I feel okay taking on what I would refer to as hobby projects, like working with a singer or working on an album. I’m at a point where I can do that because I have some bread coming in. I shouldn’t talk about musicians in general, but my experience is that a lot of musicians do it the opposite way. They take on projects that they want and then later they take on stuff that actually brings in bread.
I was talking to Cameron the other day, and I forget who he quoted, but he said, “A gig has to have two of the following three: the money; they music or the hang.”
Yes. I talked about that recently on Musician Wages with an article about taking free gigs. There has to be something in it for you: the money, the music or the hang.
Are there any other sources of income? You’ve gotten some placement lately and are taking on a lot of hired gun and sight reading work. Is there anything else that you’ve done with your skills?
I’ve found that especially in New York but everywhere I’ve gone that to really make your freelance career more comfortable, it’s really good to have one or two steady gigs. I work at a church in the Bronx, a Catholic Church with two services per week. It’s a really low-stress gig. I show up one day per week, and I play my gig, and everybody’s really nice, and then I go home and it’s great. It’s a good gig for me because on Sunday mornings there is never anything else going on. And it’s not one of those churches that has eight services and a choir and all this stuff. It’s very low responsibility. I show up, play my gig and come home, and it gives me the bread I need on slow weeks. I don’t teach lessons. I used to teach lessons about ten years ago, but I’m not that great at it, and I also found it was a lot of hassle, because people were always canceling their lessons. And then what do you do? And I didn’t really like doing it. So I don’t. I do vocal coaching with actors here in town. That’s a big source of income for a lot of musical directors, and I am no different.
I didn’t realize you have singing in the mix as well.
Well, theater is a weird thing. I’m not a voice teacher. There’s a difference in New York between voice teachers and voice coaches. It’s a musical theater thing. Voice teachers talk about the musical pedagogues. They talk about the actual instrument and technique. And they are very expensive. Vocal coaches are less expensive and teach new music. Often actors are not musicians and don’t play piano, so if they have a new song they need to learn for an audition or are trying to work on new audition repertoire, they’ll come to a vocal coach like me, and I will play through songs to them and teach it to them and maybe talk a little bit about technique as needed, but it’s mostly coaching. It’s like a music consultant thing for actors. It’s something that is specific to theater towns. Chicago has a little bit of it and maybe L.A., but it’s a big thing in New York City to be a vocal coach for actors. I do that now and then, but I also freelance at NYU in their musical theater department, so sometimes I work as a music director. In that situation it’s a cross between a pianist and a choir director and a vocal coach and a director. You talk about theater and story and music or sometimes you sit there and play piano. Between the church gig, the NYU gig and coaching, those fill in the holes when there aren’t gigs. That’s probably normal for guys like me in New York.
For more information about Dave Hahn please visit his personal website
I also strongly recommend the blog he founded with Cameron Mizell – MusicianWages.com
In a subsequent email Dave also mentioned his “hobby projects”
Funny Ringtones and a singer named Blythe he is developing