The ultimate prize a recording contract..II….


The last section covered how a recording deal is structured.  Please read it before reading this blog. If you don’t I guarantee that you’ll be confused.

As I mentioned in the last blog the deal is structured as a series of options. These lock the band into a consecutive series of time periods when they are bound to the label and are working on creating a set of recordings that meet their obligations laid out in their contract. I realize that sentence is pretty complex and may not make much sense without a great deal of head scratching. Let me put it another way.

A recording contract says that the band can only record for the label and no one else. This is absolute and final. There is no scenario where the label will allow the band to record tracks without the label being in absolute control of those masters. I have run into these kind of conflicts while managing bands. For example the band Miracle Legion was on tour with the Icelandic band The Sugarcubes. As is natural on a tour the bands became good friends. Soon they started to join each other on stage. The logical next step? I get a call saying that they would like to record together.

I immediately knew the problems that would come once the labels got wind of this plan. Miracle Legion was signed to Rough Trade at this time and that label, perhaps the only one in existence at the time that would allow it, I knew would work out a compromise. The Sugarcubes on the other hand, were signed to Electra. Electra, like all majors, had no capacity to compromise.

As soon as the bands brought it up I booked the time and rearranged the tour to free up a recording block. I then set about doing my best to cover up what we were doing. I started some false rumors. “Miracle Legion was leaving the tour” “There was tension based upon who was sleeping with whom” etc. All the rumors were untrue of course, but I tried to make them as plausible as possible knowing that any potentially harmful rumor would grab the label’s attention. If they were concerned about who Bjork was sleeping with they might not spend the time to notice exactly why a hole had appeared in the band’s schedule and it conveniently left both bands in New York for three days. I knew that the key was to get the bands into the studio and get the tracks cut before the label could stop them. That’s exactly what we did.

The end result was 4 wonderful songs and years of war with electra. We put the tracks out under Rough Trade and said “Sue us”. So they did. At least the fans got to hear it. The point to this little tale is that once you sign with a label they own you. What I did with the Sugarcubes was basically unheard of… no one signs with a major and then records without their approval.( well Hendrix did and Miles Davis, and a few others…) They never, ever, ever give their approval unless it is their idea.

So if you sign with a label you are their possession, their slave. If this doesn’t sit well with you then DON’T SIGN WITH A MAJOR LABEL! I am sure some of you are imagining that your stubborn son of a bitch personality will allow you to manipulate them into allowing whatever you want. This is extremely naive. They have enslaved bigger egos than yours, bet on it.

So now lets look at the second half of a recording contract the section that covers royalties and payments. This is the heart of the agreement and this is the section where the band gets screwed. Yes the first section that controls everything you do is bad but the second section where the deal outlines how the band is paid is the part that really guts the band and controls them.

The way that royalties are paid and accounted for is based upon the way records were sold long, long ago. As a result the language used and the system used can be confusing. The first thing to understand is that everything is based upon MSRP. Manufacture’s Suggested Retail Price. This is a price, agreed by the major labels and representatives of retail music chains. It is a fictional price that is somewhere near the real average price that CDs sell for on a daily basis. I have been in the business for twenty-five years and I am unsure exactly how they decide this number. I expect that I could find out more about the process but I just don’t care to. The only thing that matters is knowing what the number is. For the balance of this blog let’s just assume that the MSRP is currently $14.98. I have no idea if this is current but it doesn’t matter. The number is a basis for calculating what a band is paid.

A typical contract my say that the band will be paid 12% of MSRP. This works out to $1.80. So it appears that for each CD sold the band, the artist, you will be paid $1.80. Sounds great doesn’t it. So you sell a 100,000 CDs and get paid $180,000. Fantastic. Well it would be. It’s just that the balance of the of the language in the contract takes this simple formula and starts to alter it. So what is the real formula? Well it goes something like this……. The first thing they take off is called a “packaging deduction”. This is a fictional discount that the artist pays for to “package the CD”. ???? What the hell does that mean? Well, quite simply they are charging you for putting the CD in a jewel case and putting a booklet in the case. The standard seems to be 25% currently. So now we add this to the formula and it looks like this $14.98 x 75% =$11.24 $11.24 x 12% royalty = $1.35. So that little trick cost you $.50 of your royalty.

So now you sell those 100,000 CDs and you get paid $135,000 right? No, not so fast. It seems that the sales figures and not just a simple count of CDs sold. The first 50,000 CDs get half the normal royalty rate….What???!!! what the fuck???!! Oh yeah, don’t worry about that you’re gonna sell millions right?

So let’s look at the formula again….100,000 sales now pays $106,000. Ok still seems like you can get by on this kind of money. BUt that, of course, is not what the band is paid. The band paid the producer, 40,000 and the studio 90,000 so that money is still owed. Yes, that’s right, the fees for production and recording come out of the band’s share. Doesn’t sound fair does it? (Let’s not get all trapped in the whole “fair” thing…it’s just too complex) This little fact looks even more outrageous when you consider that the band pays for the recording sessions and producer, engineers etc but the label owns the recording. In fact even though the band is paying the producer the producer answers directly to the label. Any band that thinks otherwise will learn a quick lesson.  It might be workable if this is where the band’s debts ended but, of course, it doesn’t.  The band also pays for promotions costs. Yup, that’s the costs that the label incurs to promote the record. The band pays for radio bribes. The band pays for print advertising. The band pays for the generation of artwork. Let’s just cut to the chase—- the band pays FOR EVERYTHING THAT HAS TO DO WITH THE ALBUM!!!. Yes that’s correct. I didn’t just make it up. 

So the A & R guy flies out from LA to visit the studio while the band is cutting tracks. He stays a few days a goes back to tell the label how brilliant the band’s new tracks are….. and sure enough 18 months later the costs of the flight, the hotel he stayed out, the car he rented (and boy was it a nice one), the meals he ate and yes, that nice meal he treated the band to… they are all deducted from the band’s cut.

Here’s another possibility. The record starts to get some college airplay in the Northwest on a half-dozen college stations. The head of College promotions jumps right on this trend. He jets out to Seattle, rents a car, gets a pocketful of cash and starts to make the rounds of the radio stations. he hires as many of the music directors and program directors for these radio stations.  He pays them to put up flyers for the band on campus and more importantly on other campuses and to talk to other DJs and staff at other college stations about how they too could have this cool, lucrative job putting up flyers. As a result the band’s record climbs from 36 on the Northwest college charts to #11.  This whole little exercise costs $43,000 over the course of two months. two years later the band discovers they must pay back $43,000 before they earn any money.

Here’s another angle.  The band hears about the scheme to promote the record in the Northwest and says “hey we got a better idea. Why don’t we play in Seattle and Tacoma and Portland and Vancouver!!”  So you rent a bus and gear and travel around and play all these towns and your record goes from #36 on the college charts to #1 on the college charts. The label, orgasmic over this cosmic stroke of luck decides to celebrate. They fly a third of the staff out to Seattle for a rocking celebratory show. Here it comes… you guessed it kiddies…two years later the band discovers that their tour support, the chartered plane, the hotels, the bribes they still insisted on handing out to DJs etc. are all being paid back out of the bands cut of the royalties. It all comes to a whopping $211,000. Are you starting to see the picture here?

Let me be extremely clear about this blog and this particular topic. IF A BAND SIGNS A MAJOR LABEL CONTRACT EVERY SINGLE DIME SPENT TOWARDS MAKING THE RECORD OR PROMOTING THE RECORD OR PAYING ANYONE COMES OUT OF THE BAND’S CUT!!! As a result, unless you become Bruce Springsteen you will make nothing from recording for a major label. There is only one exception to this rule. Whoever writes the songs and controls the publishing of the songs on the record may very well make some money. Since the law demands that labels pay for the use of the songs the songwriter is the only one that gets paid consistently when a record sells.

Well that’s enough for the moment. I realize that I haven’t been posting lately so I am now back in the swing of it……….

©Brad Morrison/ Billiken Media 2010

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Let’s all beat up a demo!!!


The title of this blog takes a small liberty. I am going to commit all of the beatdown. You, the reader just get to play along and, perhaps, add a pithy comment after you have absorbed my mystical wisdom.  I have been threatening for over a month now to take one or two of the submitted demos and critique them publically. Now I will make good on that threat. Tonight’s blog will be about a demo from the band Spiral Jetty Club. The next blog will cover a demo from Oliver of Melbourne Australia. I belive that is on the other side of the earth from New york. Since I haven’t visited Melbourne there is a good chance, as far as I am concerned, that it is mythical, like nirvana. Oliver may be some kind of Unicorn/hobbit creature for all I know.  Well, in the world of how to succeed at rock even hobbit/troll/fairy bands need to make great demos so OLiver is gonna get his nosebleed next week. This week, as I have just said, the honors go to Spiral Jetty Club.

Queen of Coincidence

Here’s their submission “Queen of Coincidence”. Give it a listen, not once but twice.

Here’s a link to a page with the song’s lyrics.  Are lyrics important? Hell yes, they are important.  Can you have a hit without lyrical talent? Yes, Huey Lewis and the News proved that point in the most mundane fashion possible. Led Zeppelin also wrote some monumentally crappy lyrics as well. At least they, unlike Huey Lewis, dressed cool. 

So here is my first take. I’ll throw in all the good stuff. Decent tune. The woman singing lead (perhaps it’s a ladyboy but I’ll go with woman for simplicity) can sing. She has a classic post nirvana cute girl persona. It works well with the material. The demo is simple acoustic and keyboards. It has a simple, straightforward arrangement Verse — 1/2 Chorus,Verse !/2Chorus, Full Chorus x 2, Bridge, 1/2 chorus, Full Chorus…..Cute ending. The keyboard textures fit and fill out the song. The lyrics based on the romantic notion of chance and meeting the right guy are cleverly built and conclude, as expected, with a note of hope.  As a song it is pop, has a decent hook and an interesting sound……….

If I was listening to this recording from the standpoint of production I would say that it works well as a production demo, something to build on and a good starting point. As a demo to send to a label I doubt if it will seriously interest an A & R person much less land the band a deal.  First it has a catchy hook but doesn’t sound like a hands down hit. Labels want every song to be a hit. This, of course, is impossible but they want it anyway.  The performance and writing fails to set the band out from the background of thousands of competent writers with decent singing voices. It takes no chances. It sounds like many other things that every label has heard. Labels want unique, compelling, hits.

To start with the song could modulate up a whole tone half way through the song to build tension. Her vocal performance could go from calm and studied to frantic and desperate or weird and disturbed.  At no point does the song offer any surprises or hooks that shake your soul.  Hard to do in a simple demo? Sorry but that is just not true. Listen to Beatles rough demos. Listen to Pete Townsend demos. Listen to the demos of almost any hit and you can hear some magic. It’s in there from the beginning. This song has a long way to go but a serious rewrite, taking the basic ideas and developing them to throw in some surprises and a few hints of great performance and the song will be closer to a real, pro demo.  The singer, Caylin Sanders has talent. She obviously knows how to write. Does she know how to rewrite? Does she know how to arrange a song in a way that isn’t tied to the first arrangement that the band stumbles onto? Can she recut the vocal so that it really comes across as  person looking for something and wondering if they found it? Music must have emotional content to communicate with the listener. This track ends up being pleasant.  Do you think pleasant lands a band a deal?

The song tries to pull you in in the beginning. It comes close but the arrangement offers up no tricks to ensure that the listener stays tuned. This is key to hooking an A & R person. By the time you reach the chorus the A & R person should be praying that the chorus is as great or greater than the verse was. Does this song reach that goal. No.

I encourage all of you to post comments with additional criticism. If all you can come up with is that it does rock like your favorite headbangers then skip adding your voice to the blog. I’ll just delete you anyway. Instead your comments should be designed to help the band make the track better. The best way to learn is to teach others…when you can do that then you will be on your way to succeeding at rock.

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

Queen of Coincidence © Spiral Jetty Club

Demos and the fine art of getting it down on tape………


About a month ago I ran a posting asking people to send in their demos. As I mentioned in that posting the idea was for me to criticize the demos in an effort to teach you, the reader, something about songwriting and recording. I got quite few submissions and, in general, there was some good stuff. Nonetheless I intend to kick the stuffing out of the songs I have picked. I am not doin’ this to discourage the musicians that were brave enough to go through this process. Instead I am going to give you an idea of how tapes are torn up by label people and producers.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs almost everyone in the music business can come up with one solid criticism of anything they hear and that is that whatever it is, no matter how good or bad, it would have benefited greatly if the person doing the talking had been involved in its creation.  The music business is full of people who are firmly convinced that they know everything there is to know about writing songs, recording music and turning that music into a mega popular world-wide hit.  In the few cases were I have seen this actually happen it usually results in something like “The Witch Doctor Song” as sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks or the Macarena. It is useful to remember that very few of these people actually have any talent. If they did they would be musicians. During the Golden Age of record companies there were A & R people who really knew their stuff. There are even a few of them alive now. ( I’ll mention Joe McEwan and leave it at that…Hi Joe..How’s the wife?)( I should also admit that this whole blog is based on the premise that I know something about writing songs, recording songs and creating hits. At least I have succeeded in all three activities so there is a chance I am qualified)

Sadly, if you are determined to be involved with a large label then you will end up dealing with dullards, power mad gay hobbits, Human version of Jabba the Hut and slimey limey Simon Cowell types. You may even get lucky and find yourself attached to one of the people in the business that understand that it is a business but at its heart it’s about music. Good luck.

Tonight’s blog is not going to actually get around to presenting some music and then pulling it apart. In order to reach that point I must talk about what demos do and don’t do for a band. I must also address some of the stupid misconceptions about demos.

The first grand misconception..”In order for a demo to be effective you’ve gotta break the bank and spend as much as you can on recording and producing it”. This is completely untrue. I suspect that this fallacy is kept alive by studio owners and indy producers that make serious coin when they run into a band with a rich daddy that will pay the bills. The truth is that the value of a demo is determined by the quality of the songwriting and the fire in the belly of the band that cuts the track. It’s that simple. Good recording, bad recording, 24 track digital, two-track kids cassette deck it doesn’t matter.  If you can’t hear the song, if you can’t really hear the band then that’s a lousy demo. If the band spends lots of money and time recording a demo they will get nothing other than a lesson. The lesson will end up being that it was a waste of time and money.

Second misconception “The formula for a demo is ____________. ” I’ve heard many things used to fill in the blank. “It’s gotta be just three songs” “It should be two upbeat songs and a ballad” “It needs to have a hundred-dollar bill and a gram of coke tucked into the CD sleeve” . This last one might actually get you the attention of the kind of record executive that will spend your whole recording budget on coke.  Truth is there is no formula. Demos shouldn’t be really long since it will never get listened to all the way through.  Demos should consist of a few great songs with enough material to show exactly what a band sounds like.

Third Misconception – ” A great demo will start a bidding war and land a deal overnight” I’ve heard this one ever since I entered the music business in 1978. That’s …hmm let me think…32 years ago. In all of that time I have never met a band signed as a result of a demo. I think that ends that rumor.  The way that a band gets signed is a result of many factors adding up. This has to be matched by having contacts and interested people working for you. When you put great shows, great songs, great demos, popularity (the most important factor), buzz, press attention together with a network of people who know about you , you end up with a recording contract.

In short your demo can have things about it that sucks but if the band is great that should shine through. If, as is usually the case, the band is just OK, perhaps good in some ways and not so good in others, then you will not get a deal due to those factors and the demo will just show other people the band’s weaknesses.

So now we reach the question “What do record companies do with demos? Who listens to them? How do I get them listened to?” These are all part of the same subject.

All of the major record labels do not accept unsolicited demos. Why do they do this? Why are they so mean? It’s simple really. They believe that any band that is worth listening to will have people promoting them. They will have a manager or a lawyer or they will have devoted fan that IS IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS. They believe this because it is true.  Promoters, agents, managers, producers, lawyers, road managers, film makers, DJs, studio engineers etc. all have their ears open for a great band. These people insulate the major labels from the mountain of demos that are not worth listening to. All of these characters have their ears open in an effort to find the band first and get onboard to make some money as the band succeeds.  Many musicians have a problem with this concept. They view all of these people as parasites. This is a stupid, self-destructive attitude. These people are not parasites they are symbiotes. What does that mean? It means that they do not feed off of the band and bleed the band and weaken the band, no, instead they work alongside the band and help them succeed. They teach the band the craft of being rock stars and the tricks of the trade. They produce and promote records. In general the further a person is from the major labels the greater the native talent they need to survive. An independent producer must search out and discover band after band and then convince them to let him produce a record. Then promote this recording. These are all valuable services for the band.

Now I can hear a certain number of you out there saying “Not me, I’m the next demigod of rock and no one knows it. All I need to do is walk on stage and the world will crawl to my feet.” Gee I hope that is true, for your sake. Even if you are Loki, the god of the underworld, you need to learn how to put on a great show and how to arrange your songs. You need to learn how to record. You need to learn how to talk to a writer and how to do a radio interview without sounding like Bozo the Clown.

So now that you know that you can’t just send in your demo – why should you make a demo? Well, you need the demo to get the other characters interested. You need to make a cheap, dirty beginners demo to turn on a producer or engineer. This allows you to make a better demo that ends up getting you a lawyer and catches the ear of a booking agent that will pick you up as your audience starts to grow.  This gets you to a label that finances some development demos that lands you a publishing deal….Are you starting to see the sequence?

So let’s go back to demos and the major labels. I will take the time to answer a few basic questions just to get them out of the way.

“How do I get them listened to?” Demos that make it to an A & R department of a major label get there by being passed on by an established manager, lawyer, producer or booking agent.  They are the gatekeepers. The status of the person that submits the demo determines who will listen to it.  For example I managed three different acts on Columbia records at one time. The PResident of Columbia was (and I think still is) Don Ienner. Don and I have met professionally many times. We’ve met to discuss promoting my acts, releasing various items from these acts, coordinating tours of these acts etc. If I were to call him he would pick up the phone. He would do this for two reasons. First he knows me professionally and respects the fact that I manage bands that have enough clout and status to be signed to Columbia. Second he knows from his experience with me that I only call people when I have something concrete to talk to them about. He also knows that whatever I want to talk to him about WILL LIKELY BE ADVANTAGEOUS TO HIM AND COLUMBIA. This is an important point. Always call people with something that might help them. This will make your phone calls wanted rather than an annoyance.

If I were to call Don Ienner and ask him to listen to a tape he would tell the VP of A & R to listen to the tape and give him his opinion. Then, if that opinion was favorable he would listen to it and call me up with a reaction.  If the music seemed like something Columbia might want he would suggest a showcase and ask questions like “Are you planning on managing or producing?” You might be surprised to know that, although I have known Don Ienner since 1988 I have only called him about a tape twice.  Why? Because I have only found two occasions where I was in the position to pitch him a tape that fit with Columbia’s interests and I had the job of pitching the band. In both cases Columbia did not offer the band a deal. Since one of the bands was the band Phish and they went on to be one of the biggest bands of the 1990’s I expect that the next time I call him he will listen to whatever I send him.

Let us compare that scenario with a different, fictional one to help explain how the system works. Let’s say that a junior lawyer at an Entertainment Law Firm in Minneapolis,MN calls Columbia to pitch a tape.  Columbia will take him seriously since he is a professional and is in the business. They will probably tell him that someone will call him back. This call will get routed to an A & R co-ordinator. This is a person in the A & R department that works out all kinds of things like flights for A & R staff, showcase arrangements and, as in this case, calls from unknown law firms and managers. They won’t ignore the call. What if this band turns out to be the next Phish? Every major label is haunted by stories of how they turned down an artist that went on to fame. As a result they try to at least chalk up a rejection for everything that someone in the business shops to them.

In this case the A & R co-ordinator will pass on the contact to a junior A & R guy. He will call the lawyer, listen to the pitch and tell the lawyer to send in the tape. He then lists the tape in the incoming demo log. He is supposed to listen to the tape shortly after it arrives. Unfortunately he may make ten calls like this every day. The stack of unlistened to tapes grows and grows. As it does he pushes his boss to let him hire a “listener”. This is a person, usually an intern that gets cheap wages to listen to mountains of tapes. For each tape he writes a little blurb and rates it. He may get to pick out three or four as his favorites which the Junior A & R guy will then listen to.

So, it’s obvious that your chances of getting a deal through the junior lawyer in Minneapolis are slim. Even if the tape does get someone interested this is just the beginning of a long process with showcases, various demos and finally the word that they are gonna pass.  During that time you can grow old and die. NEVER WAIT TO GET SIGNED!!! It’s fine to pursue getting a deal but  never put of making records and playing live while waiting to get signed. This is a common and deadly mistake.

Next blog I will post two demos, one from the band Spiral Jetty Club and the other from the ever-present reader Oliver from Australia. I will then pull them apart and tell you how a label would view them, how a manager might view them and how a producer would hear them so stay tuned…………………………………………….