by Moe Berg, Canadian Musician, May/June, 1999
To most musicians, music business is an unfortunate oxymoron. Young artists especially have a difficult time seeing music as anything other than a creative endeavour.
However, the fact is once you charge admission to one of your gigs or produce a cassette, 7-inch or CD for sale, you've become a commercial artist and your music is a commodity. This is a sad but important realization to make, and once you have made it, the record industry becomes a much easier thing to understand.
Imagine walking into a record company, then a management office, then a booking agency and in each case saying to the people working there, "Here's my idea. You guys are going to spend all day promoting me and my music but you're going to do it for the love of music and you won't get paid." You might find yourself with a somewhat unsympathetic audience. Though many in the music business love music and get a thrill when an artist they like does well, no one does a job for free. Money is the fuel that runs the music industry and if you are not making some for somebody, your career will be limited.
I have seen young musician pals of mine with fresh record deals, hanging with their record company people, going to dinner, drinking free drinks, basically being under the illusion that these people were their "friends". I've seen them months later, angry, bitter, feeling betrayed by those same "friends" when their record stiffed and no one is returning their phone calls. It appears to them that the music business is cruel and heartless, when in actual fact, it's no worse than any other business. It only seems like it is because the product isn't soft drinks or carpet nails. The product is music, which is created by actual humans with feelings.
So it is important to establish some boundaries when dealing with people in the industry. This is not to say that music business folks are bad people. I have good friends in the industry but they are my friends because we get along, have common interests - the same reasons I'm friends with people outside of the business. You are asking to be let down if you think the mere fact that someone is working with or for you is the basis for a friendship. Understand that there are hundreds of artists out there with their asses stuck out to be kissed and a record company person can be excused for only wanting to kiss the ones she or he absolutely has to.
The next thing to remember is that the people you hire, like your agent, management, video director or record producer, are working for you, not the other way around. While it would be downright foolish to hire someone and then not take advantage of their expertise, it would be equally foolish to allow them to misrepresent you or bully you into doing things that compromise your integrity. They are there because of your talent and the revenue that talent can generate for them. One of the most important words in your vocabulary should be no. Use it sparingly, there is no reason to be deliberately contrary, but let people know when they've made a decision that you feel is not in your best interests. Remember if things go badly for you, they can all go find one of the other 10,000 bands who are trying to make it and work for them. But you will be the one left hating yourself because you didn't speak up at the appropriate moment and stop something undesirable from happening.
The more active you are in the decision-making process of your career, the less likely anything really awful will happen. As often as possible get a mutual consent clause in your contracts. This means that important decisions cannot be made without your approval. A good example of this would be found in a publishing deal. If you have a mutual consent clause, then your publisher will not be able to use your music for any purpose without your permission. There may be many ways you do not want your music used. Maybe you don't want it in a beer commercial. If you don't have a say in how your work is exploited, your publisher may allow anyone who will pay the asking price to have access to it.
The better you understand the business, the less arbitrary and confusing it is. If you're smart, you'll have more fun and you won't get burned as often. But most importantly, if you are vigilant about how you present yourself and are presented by others, you will always be able to look at your career and, as the old song says, know you did it "your way"! Because in the end, it is all about your art and even though you may be reluctantly drawn into the business world because of it, the business world should never interfere with your music.
Copyright © 1999, Canadian Musician, Norris-Whitney Communications, Inc.