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The Pursuit of the Record Deal
by Tom Hess
Do you want a successful, stable and rewarding career as a professional musician? Would you like to know exactly what record companies, producers, and management companies are looking for when seeking out new artists? There are many great musicians who are not able to build a successful career in music because they do not know what it is these companies want from them. As a result, many struggle and wonder why they are unable to “make it” even though they may be incredible musicians with great songs. What usually happens is that people start to believe the common myth about luck. They believe that you need to “get lucky” in order to “make it”. The result is that most musicians give up on their dreams and get a normal (non music related) day job.
Because you are reading this article, I can imagine that you have probably faced similar challenges. I know how you feel, because I went through the same depressing struggle for years and have seen hundreds of great musicians travel along the same path. But over time, I have discovered that in many cases the lack of success is caused by the musicians (including myself in the past) simply not knowing what it is the music industry companies want from new artists.
You probably already know that record labels, producers, entertainment lawyers, and managers seek artists who have a lot more to offer than talent alone. What they want from you is a “total package” which includes many things, but the two main factors are: adding more value (in terms of money and/or opportunity), and reducing potential downside risks to the music company. I am going to tell you more about these two elements of value and risk in this article.
Prior to signing my first record deal and doing my first real tour, I read dozens of books about the music business. Although some of these books were helpful, I quickly discovered that the reality of the music business was very different from what the books described. In most cases these books weren’t necessarily ‘wrong’, just very incomplete.
Entering the industry as a professional opened my eyes to many things I had never heard of or thought about before. Eventually I came to know and understand many important details about the companies I worked with: their needs, challenges, problems and mindsets. I paid very close attention to things that others around me often overlooked. I did this for two reasons:
- I wanted to advance my own career to the maximum extent possible while remaining in control of the ways in which that growth occurred.
- I was already mentoring other musicians, so going deeper into my understanding of the music business was something I needed to do for their benefit as well.
The central theme which kept coming up in my earliest conversations with the record label executives I worked with was “partnership”. Today, it seems perfectly normal for me to think that record companies might see their artists as “business partners”, but at the time, I didn’t think that the term had a genuine meaning. Over the years that followed, the concept of ‘partnerships’ began to show up everywhere, but I probably would not have paid much attention to it if my first meetings with the record label and management hadn’t been so focused on this fundamental idea.
Record labels, managers, and successful bands, are looking for artists who think in terms of mutual benefit. You must think in this way before any company in the music industry will want to work with you and invest their money and resources into your career. Imagine you are in a band, trying to get a record contract. Obviously you know what YOU want from this deal (access to the record company’s resources that will be used to propel your career forward, attract new fans, sell more records, make more money, go on tours, etc.) But have you thought about what THE COMPANY wants (besides the obvious)?
Now imagine for a moment that you are the president of a record label. Would you take $250,000 of your money and invest it into a band which is good and has marketable songs??? I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t do this, UNTIL AND UNLESS it was clear to me that my investment into the band will not be a waste of money, and will bring back substantial returns. It’s highly unlikely that a $250,000 record label budget will be enough to take a band anywhere significant if that band is ‘only’ a good band with marketable songs. It’s going to take a lot more than good talent and good marketable songs to get the type of serious commitment and investment from a label which is needed to advance your band’s future over the long term. It takes a partnership (not merely a contract and a budget) to make this happen.
What about you?
Do you think you have what it takes to become a successful business partner of any company in the music industry? Take this 5 minute survey and find out:
Music Careers - Music Industry Survey
Here are a few things you need to think about when approaching any company in the music industry:
Key mindsets you need to acquire:
Too often artists and companies are at odds with each other because each is out to reach its own objectives even if those objectives are in direct conflict with the other side’s goals. When either side feels “entitled” to something without a win-win strategy, everything breaks down between them. And sooner or later both sides lose (and so do the fans!).
- Don’t seek to be merely an “employee” of a company, instead, think in terms of a win/win partnership.
- Do not feel like you are entitled to receive money or opportunities simply because you are talented. It is not the company’s job to reward you for your music. It’s their job to reward you for the value you bring to them (beyond the music).
- You must become a partner in what they want to achieve. And you want them to be a partner in what you want to achieve. Note that I am not talking about “selling out”. Selling out would involve giving up your musical integrity for money (or other benefits). What I am describing is simply one of the most basic and universal practices of business. You must give the other side what they want in order to receive what you want from them. If you follow this principle, success in business (and life) becomes so much easier!
Until you begin to think and work with the win-win partnership concept, the people and companies with the greatest power to help you will typically not be interested in you…. And the bad people (“sharks”) in the industry might seek to take advantage of you, if you are talented but ignorant to how the music business world works.
Here is How These Mindsets Help You:
The good music business people expect you to know how the music industry functions BEFORE they begin to work with you. They get tired of answering basic questions about how things work. While the companies could teach you these fundamentals, they would prefer for you to learn them yourself. The reason they want this is because it saves THEM time (and resources).
Remember, when it comes to getting other people to associate with you, think in terms of what they stand to gain or lose by signing you to a record deal or putting your band on tour (or anything else).
These music companies prefer not to waste their time teaching you about the music industry, general business, mental attitudes, image, stage presence, logistics, etc. At first glance, this may seem like an inconvenience for you, but it isn’t. It is in YOUR interest to see these resources spent on promoting your career, helping you sell records, tour the world, attract more fans, make more money etc. If instead, a big chunk of money and time was spent on teaching you what you should already know, who do you think loses the most? YOU do! This is because the company’s resources SHOULD be spent on helping you achieve what you could not do on your own (and learning the fundamentals of the business is not one of them).
Also, remember that since music companies are directly investing money into your career, they will expect their investment back, with interest. Therefore, it is (again) to your advantage to minimize any waste in that investment. Here is an example.
Let’s say that your band was put on tour by a record company, but the management believes that your band does not know how to conduct yourselves on and off stage. They will require you to be coached in these areas (and believe me, they WILL). If rehearsals take an additional week (at the rate of thousands of dollars per day), then money will be spent on this new expense instead of being invested into other aspects of your tour, record and career. Remember, this extra money will need to be paid back to the company FIRST before your band sees any profits from the tour OR your record (yes your label will require to be recouped for all expenses).
Many new bands feel a sense of ‘entitlement’ and think it is the tour manager’s job to coach the band how to conduct themselves on and off stage. This, as already discussed, costs the band and the label a lot of money. However, when you see yourself in a win-win partnership with the label, then you know that it is in everyone’s best interest to take the initiative to prepare yourself in all possible ways before money is spent. If you are not prepared beforehand, you are creating a higher investment risk for the company you work with!
Here are the most important things to remember from this article:
- Find out as much as you can about the companies you want to work with before approaching them. This will help you in many ways. First, you will familiarize yourself with their goals, business desires and challenges. This will help you to anticipate and come up with win/win solutions to business negotiations. Also, the people in these organizations will be impressed that you took the time to learn about their needs before approaching them. They will remember you.
- Always try to see all business situations and proposals from the point of view of the other side. This will allow you to better anticipate their needs, challenges and possible objections toward working with you. Then you need to demonstrate this understanding in both words and actions.
- Think in terms of win/win partnerships. If you develop a reputation for coming up with business ideas that meet your needs as well as the needs of the other side, you will find many more attractive opportunities coming your way.
- Seek ways you can add value while reducing risk. In all of business, (music industry or otherwise), your success will be greatly affected by your ability to deliver high value with low risk. Before approaching any company with a business proposal, consider all of the ways you are planning to add value to the project. Can you expand this list? Do the same analysis of all of the potential risks of a particular business partnership (whether it comes from you or other people in the project). What can you do to minimize or eliminate these risks? If you do this, you will definitely have a great advantage over most musicians who are more concerned about how much their paycheck is going to be, rather than trying to enhance the value for all parties involved.
- After you have done all that you can to add value and reduce risk, you again need to demonstrate this in both words and actions. Think of how most bands try to get signed, they play local shows, try to increase their following, send their promo kits to labels, management, entertainment lawyers, etc. In this way, you compete with all the other unknown bands. Here is a huge tip, why not focus directly on showing and proving to these companies/people how your value is higher and your risk is lower than the thousands of other bands who are sending their press kits every year. Although there is much more to the story, this is the basis for how I landed my own first record deal J. This approach helped to further separate myself from literally thousands of other excellent guitar players who pursued the same opportunities I received. And I’ve used this strategy to land several other fulfilling and lucrative music business related deals.
- Lose the feeling of entitlement. As I alluded to in the article, no music company in the world will want you, unless you have something to offer them which they find valuable. Nobody is “entitled” to a record deal or more money simply because they may be a great musician. Feeling this way is a mistake that a lot of musicians make and one that I hope you will avoid, now that you are aware of it after reading this article. What you need to do instead is prove to the other party how they would be passing up a great opportunity if they didn’t work with you. When you can do this, you will find that the other things will fall into place much easier.
You should think deeply about the issues that I brought up and consider the ways some or all of them can apply to your current (or future) music career. I have given you some good starting points to begin thinking and planning for success. Use them to take the actions you know you must take to reach your goals!
If you missed the survey mentioned at the beginning of this article, I encourage you to test yourself here:
Music Careers - Music Industry Survey
©2008 Tom Hess Music Corporation
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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