Why songwriting is the key


I just listened to “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner. This 60’s pop gem was written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich was Phil Spector’s attempt to put Ike and Tina Turner at the top of the charts.  It’s a masterpiece. How do I know this? Phil Spector said so. So did George Harrison and shit load of other people.  When it was released it rose to #88 in the US charts and then dropped out of sight. Phil Spector was so bummed he quit the music business for two years and slowly, thereafter, became a homicidal recluse. The fact that it went straight to #3 in England didn’t impress him. He still felt that he had failed.  I am now going to argue that he was right.

The damn record is a beautiful roar of overproduction.  He, of course, is known for creating the wall of sound style of production and this single is the ultimate example of that over-the- top style.  Unfortunately this buried the perfect song that should have carried the song into the whistling repertoire of every kid in america.  It’s interesting to note that the song later became a standard live hit for Tina Turner. This just proves my point. It’s a fuckin’ great song. It sums up obsessive love in a few verses and says it in a way that can punch holes in your heart.  Great song, overproduced = notable success without mega success.  Phil knew what he was writing about. He’s an obsessive guy. He once gave his wife twin five-year old boys as a christmas present. He didn’t ask he just got them and gave them to her.  Sure… that’s normal…. everyone gives other humans as Christmas presents.  So he’s nuts. We’ve established that fact without even exploring his recent homicide conviction.  Even so he knew how to write hits.  That talent is priceless and the true key to making it to the top. Let’s look for some examples that prove the point.

Bob Dylan -ugly fucker, can’t play, arrogant asshole that’s subject to maniacal obsessions, brilliant writer = superstar writer

Tom Petty – ugly bastard with weird voice, great writer =superstar writer

Lennon, McCartney, Harrison – pleasant people, hipsters, undeniably brilliant writers = changed the world for a generation.

I can come up with hipper and weirder examples but it all points to the same thing. Songwriting is the core of what makes bands breakout into the rarefied air of superstardom. If you want to succeed learn to write a great song. One will do. Tons of undeniably brilliant songs would be better but that may be too much to shoot for.

Writing great songs is a combo of vision, some talent and lots and lots of craft. It is a process that can be improved and honed, polished and practiced. It rarely appears wholly developed in useable form.  All the great writers learn from those that come before them. They listen to other great writers and absorb their themes.  If you listen to a great songwriter, say Bob Marley, for instance you can see that he writes about universal truths…..”No Woman, No Cry”…Gee that’s simple and boy is it true.  Great writers also steal with no shame. They don’t steal songs..well Zeppelin stole all their songs but they weren’t great writers…they steal phrases from the world around them. A friend says something true that’s clever or sad or funny and a song is born. They see an old movie and hear a perfect phrase and boom a song is born.  Great writing is the process of seeing things clearly, seeing the truth, or hearing the ring of truth in the hubbub around you.

The inspiration for a song is a morsel of magic. There is no denying that. But the heavy lifting of writing is to work and rework until the whole song is condensed into a perfectly balanced slice of life. It doesn’t matter if the meaning of the song is lost on others, they will inject their own meaning, it still must ring true to the writer and this will come through to the listener.

So this week’s blog is short. It’s also of paramount importance. If you are the writer for your band learn your craft. Learn it from the great writers. Think about their themes and their tricks to reach your soul. That’s why they are great writers and that, if you want to succeed at rock, is what you must do….

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

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How to release your own music…………


I asked for suggestions. I received quite a few.  I start by covering Dave’s suggestion that I provide a timeline for a band releasing their own music.

Let me start by repeating some advice I have proffered in the past. Releasing your own music is an excellent idea.  There seems to be an old wives’ tale that if you release your own music this will scare away labels. This is utter crap. Often people who have never worked in the actual record business will act as if they have all the answers. Invariably they will tell you “wait! shop the labels, wait until the market is ready…” – it’s all the same idiotic claptrap.  Thousands of worthy bands have expired waiting for their “big break”. The term “big break” points to the stupidity and misunderstanding that underlies this philosophy. Band’s don’t get a big break. They get ahead by hundreds of little breaks that bring them into a position to move to a large label and finally sell millions of records.  If you ever get to that point, don’t worry. The music business will go out its way to advertise the fact that the label created all the buzz and lifted you out of obscurity while ignoring everything the band and its fan base did to get ahead.

Think of any huge band. There are always “early recordings”, “demos”, “bootleg recordings” etc. These are all recordings created as the band rose to the top. You often can find members of any huge band appearing in unknown bands before they make it big. All of this illustrates that the path to the top is a series of small steps and the associations you build with other musicians on your way up.

One final thought on recording and releasing material. Just do it. Don’t fuck around. Don’t wait for that producer to find time for you next year. For any new band the first year should have fifty gigs and at least one full length recording.  Write the material, practice it and then record it. Certainly take the time to get it right but get it down on tape.  You can always rerecord material later.

Okay let’s move on. For this blog I will assume that you are recording a full length release and all of the sessions are worked out or complete.  Often bands concentrate on recording and ignore everything else. This works great if you are U2 but it causes problems if you are a little band. You need to be thinking about releasing the record as you record it.  You should be setting up a mastering engineer. They often are booked months in advance. Mastering is expensive and necessary. It often makes your material sound pro and much, much slicker.

 At the same time you MUST be working on cover art. It takes longer to manufacture the CD sleeve than to duplicate the CDs. I recently had dinner with a alt country band. They have tons of talent. More songs than they could ever use and a gig schedule that would make any young band jealous. They fought for months over the album art after completing the recording of their first record. This delayed them months and, in the end, they ended up with a lousy cover that has little to do with their music. Work out your cover art while you are making the record.  By the time you finish your mixes and are working on a sequence you should have your artwork locked in. Make sure someone is taking notes for the album cover. These notes are the classic choice to contain a few inside jokes.  Please remember that these jokes will not be understood by your fans. Do not make the whole cover an inside joke. This invariably leaves you with a cover that the fans hate and do not understand.

Now you’ve reached the point where you have a finished set of mixes and an album cover. Pick a date about four months in the future and decide that will be your release day. Book a date at one of your strongest venues.  This will be your release party. If you don’t give yourself a release date as a goal you and your band will likely stall and delay yourself into obscurity.  SET A DATE!

Once you have picked the date count backwards from this date six weeks. This should be the date that your promo copies (and your copies to sell) should be in your hand. Now that you know the production date (that’s what it’s called after all..) you can contact the CD duplicator and find out how long it takes them to duplicate the master and produce the art. It’s usually best to give both these duties to the CD duplicator. Yes you can save some money if you find artwork manufacturing separately but putting 2000 cds into their sleeves sucks so just skip it. At this point you will likely notice that you are already behind schedule. Try not to worry about it and just press ahead with mastering and setting up various things to promote this magical recording.  As you move towards the actual release don’t be surprised if you grow to dislike the recording. THIS IS COMMON AND YOU MUST LEARN TO NOT SECOND GUESS WHAT YOU HAVE DONE! If you do start to meddle and change things you will fall down the black hole that often consumes bands and leads to purgatory.

With all of this behind you it is time to work out how you will promote the recording. Here’s some standard ideas:

1. Book a tour that covers every market where you are known and any geographically related market where you can scam your way into a gig.

2.Collect lists of every magazine, E-zine, website and blog that writes about music similar to your band. These will all receive a press pack (see my blog on this) photo and CD in the weeks before your release.

3. Set up an account to upload to Itunes and other sites. (CD baby is quite popular) Design and arrange for your website to have a new look and copious verbage about the brilliant release, all primed and ready to go on the day of release.

4. Dig around on the internet for info on Indy distributors. Call other bands, ask how they sell product. Take notes. (product is one of those nasty music industry terms for music…)

5. Design a tour shirt and some kind of Choch-Kee (sp?). This is some small cheap item that has the album art or title or band name that can be given out to people to promote the release. (I have suggested fortune cookies that contain the band’s album title in some clever way. No one has ever used this idea so maybe it’s a tacky idea …hey you can be the first) Be creative, hand puppets? key chains? Kites? Hand grenades? This is your moment to shine.

6. Think of possible promo stunts…. the album is called Pig Fuckers? Hmmm…. what could you do? Creativity goes a long way towards getting people talking. When people talk CDs sell.

So now you’ve got the machine in gear. All of these things need to be timed to happen in and around the “Album Release Date”. It doesn’t matter much if you are a little early or a little late. You need college radio play (oh yeah get a list of college stations for mailing), press and local TV during the two months when your release will be new.  Don’t worry about shopping the release to labels. You can send out mailings if you like but the way to get signed is to get more popular. It’s a simple as that.

Columbia Records “discovered” Janis Joplin, the legendary blues rock singer at a show in San Francisco. She was given one of the most lucrative contracts up to that time. No one mentions that Columbia A & R guys first saw her at a 7000 seat theater show.  Those guys were a long way behind what every kid in Frisco had known for a year…Janis Joplin will melt your shoes….that’s how you get discovered.

I am sure I missed some points. Post questions, I’ll answer promptly….Oh yeah…if you are putting out a record you better be writing the next record or you will once again fall into the black hole……..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

Further thoughts on why Major labels suck….


Now it’s 2011. As I mentioned in my Christmas post I intend to add tons of new posts in the first 4 months of 2011.  As of now I don’t have any structure or plan covering these upcoming posts so I will encourage everyone to post their suggested topics as comments. I will certainly be adding more info on recording, playing live and band politics. Beyond that I will just write what comes to mind.

This morning I had a conversation with a musician friend about the demise of the music business.  It’s interesting to note that some people are still arguing that the music business still exists. This is complete lie. The days of the huge labels controlling a massive industry are over. The labels that remain are pale shadows of their former selves. How did this come to be? It’s simple. They did it to themselves. 

In the late 1980’s and early 90’s the music business underwent a format change. Vinyl records became obsolete and the CD became the new format.  For the major labels (names like Columbia, Warners, RCA, BMG, Arista etc) this brought in a deluge of unearned money.  It’s important to understand why this money wasn’t earned.

rebel yell

All you labels suck!

When CD’s were first introduced they were viewed as some kind of miracle. The supposed quality was in a new class.  This new technology was promoted as extremely expensive to produce and manufacturer. This, of course, was a lie. Yes, the earliest releases cost huge amounts of money to create. Yes, the new production plants were expensive to build. Yes, the digital format had higher apparent clarity and as a result the recordings needed to be carefully produced in order to exploit this clarity but the whole story was cleverly hidden from the musicians and more importantly the public. The real story was that the manufacturing process was like most manufacturing processes and as the amount of units created rose the costs per unit plummeted.  Soon after the introduction of CD’s the cost to produce each CD dropped from $6-8 to $1.25 per unit,  On the other hand the labels had used the introduction of the new format to raise retail prices from about $7 per vinyl record to $14 for a CD.  Their production costs had risen slightly and they had doubled the price.  And then, like a rain of gold from the gods, every hit record from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s became hits again.

What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of music is bought by people 16-24 years old. This is a key factor in understanding the mechanics of the music business.  It defines the way records are marketed. It drives the cycles of music movements and it means that a tyranny haunts the record labels. If they don’t get you to be a fan of some of their artists in that 8 year period then you are lost to them forever. Yes, there are some odd characters, like me, and, perhaps like you, that listen to new bands for decades of their lives but most people are not like this, they fall in love with certain bands as a teenager and they listen to them ’til the day they die.  This makes the music business obsessed with youth culture and youth trends. They create them. They track them. And they exploit them.

The format change to CD’s didn’t change this pattern of human behavior but it did add an interesting wrinkle to it. Suddenly everyone that had loved music when they were young decided to completely rebuy their favorite artists of yesterday. This translated into a deluge of cash to all the major labels.

Rather than seeing it for what it was, an aberration, a strange one time gift, they decided that this was the new normal pattern and expanded their staffs – fueled by the river of money rolling in the door.  The mania reached a fevered pitch and the word that money could be made in this remarkable way spread. Sony, the Japanese electronics giant, bought Columbia and Epic records in an effort to acquire their catalog. The thought being that they could introduce yet another format change ( the mini disc) and sell billions of dollars worth of gear to those crazy americans. They falsely believed that they could once again resell the complete catalog to the whole american public. All the while that this was going on the web was growing in scope in the background. It didn’t occur to any of them, as they counted their millions that the massive price increase that they had duped everyone into paying wasn’t in direct opposition to the MARKET. That’s the MARKET as an entity. The type of entity that levels playing fields with brutal indifference.

It is interesting to note that my experience working inside record labels as a manager had taught me that on the whole the executives of the large labels were lousy businessman. The upper echelons of the major labels are stocked with people who couldn’t run a Carvel ice cream store with any authority. On more than one occasion I sat through a lecture by an executive about how the music business was different. The normal rules and market forces didn’t apply.

All of this carping and self-delusion was a smokescreen to cover a little considered fact.  It’s a dirty little secret. The Music Biz is an illegal cartel. To state that more clearly in case my terminology is kinda vague, the biz is a group of huge corporations that meet secretly to fix prices and control all supply to the stores. The same companies own the production and large portions of the distribution networks.  They own it all and they never compete in the one area that counts, price. That’s why a visit to any large music retail chain will find the average music buyer looking at a sea of releases, all at the same price. Imagine that, what an interesting coincidence. How do they get away with it? Do you really have to ask? The answer is bribes. Big ones paid to politicians and regulators.

So now this particular blog has moved up to recent history. Starting in the very late 90’s the music business started to hemorrhage money. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch.  Let me take a moment to point out, so as to be crystal clear, that I am not talking about musicians. Musicians have little to do with the music business. The music business if made up of people who know little about music and in my experience have little interest in music and more to the point none of the are musicians.

As file trading came on stream the fact that music CDs had never fallen to a market driven price sent the feeding frenzy of kids downloading into overdrive.  Any what did the major labels do? Did they let the price of CDs fall since they were a dated technology? No they sued their potential customer base and got together to decide that they should RAISE the price of CDs. What utter idiots.

Now they are attempting, yet again, to use a potential price controlled monopoly system to get everyone to pay ridiculous prices for music – Apple’s I tunes. Yes it’s an amazingly convenient brilliant new technology that demands you pay the same damn price that doesn’t work in the stores. It makes this demand even though there are no costs of delivery, no physical format to manufacture and minimal artwork to produce.  I expect that some of you will argue with me on this point. Go ahead I will argue back. Please keep in mind that the rise of filetrading devalued my life’s work by a factor of ten. Nonetheless I believe it can’t be fought and needs to be utilized cooperatively.

What does this mean to you, the dudette playing in a band? It means that the labels are of no value to you. They are whales beached in the sun. Their continued attempt to dominate the market will only serve to drive music from the center of youth culture. It will only serve to make every band have to make it by playing live and promoting themselves. It means that the labels will now move aggressively into merchandise (t shirts and stuff) and live fees as part of their contracts. It means that you should avoid labels like you avoid herpes. Oh wait a minute that’s a bad analogy for musicians…fill in your own…..Is there a way out for the majors? Yes, but I am not about to tell them how to do it.  Right now there is a kid in his bedroom that has the same thought and he will end up buying their catalogs. Good for him……………..

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

What’s so great about a recording contract?


[If you like this post please “Digg it”]

We live in the age of the death of record companies. They may not know it. You may not know it but retailers do and many, many artist mangers are fully aware that the end has already come for the mega star record companies that ruled the music world from the 1920’s until 2001.

In 1999 I was retired from managing and owning a label and was living on my royalties. It wasn’t a huge income, I have never been rich but twenty-five years of managing and producing had set me up to retire. I had invested in musical copyrights. That means I owned lots of recordings, or parts of recordings.  Like most people I had worked hard and earned some time off. By 2002 my income from royalties had evaporated. The age of the file trader had come.  I am not relating this story to get sympathy. I am telling you this so that you can understand the magnitude of the changes that we are living through. People are  no longer willing to pay for recorded music. Let me rephrase that, people are no longer willing to pay Major label prices for music. Instead they will pay for music when convenance and connection with the band’s aura can be balanced against money. Let me rephrase that,  price your full length record at 5.99 with artwork or as a download, make the music amazing and you may just redefine the concept of the gold record.

This brings me to the general subject of recording contracts.  I have quite a bit of experience with these kinds of contracts and relationships. In 1993 I was managing The Figgs, an upstate New York band amongst other acts. They were extremely young and, of course, extremely ambitious. They wanted to be rock stars nothing less. In point of fact, they were rock stars, they had everything you wanted in a rock star and enough left over to produce other rock star’s records. Great band, nice guys, at least in the beginning.  They wanted to get signed to a major label. They wanted it bad. I warned them repeatedly that they didn’t have a clue what getting signed would do to them and it might very well destroy their music and destroy the band. Being young, wanna be rock stars they listened and didn’t hear a word.

I produced and released a single for them . We produced some indy sounding tracks and released them on lo fi cassettes. I booked them into places they only dreamed of playing. They learned faster than I could teach them. I filled out their musical knowledge, taught them a ton of studio tricks and got them lots of stage time so they could work up a show. (always remember you are putting on a show…if you’re not then stay home and play guitar hero on your couch..) In the late summer of ’93 (I think, it’s all a little hazy now) they moved into my house for a couple of months to record a real record. They spent their days smoking bongs, watching planet of the apes movies, playing under the covers with various female fans and eating my cooking.  Every night when the sun went down we went into my studio, Morrison Hotel, and cut tracks.  They were fuckin’ smokin’! I’ve recorded lots or sessions. thousands of hours of sessions and I gotta tell you these kids were burning it up.

We had a few rented pieces of nice gear, a couple of mics, a mic pre and a few compressors. I was recording everything to 16trk 1″ tape at 15ips. This may mean nothing to you but I’ll translate–we were laying down big, fat, rocking tracks. Whenever I hit playback the speakers almost melted. After we recorded about 25 tracks they cornered me and demanded to know when I was going to get them a record deal.  I repeated my warning about record labels. They basically told me to go fuck myself. Then I knew they were ready. If I hadn’t done it to them they would have dumped me and found some sleaze ball that didn’t give a damn about their music to do it. There was no doubt they would get a deal.

We were mixing the record down. It was tentatively called “Waiting for the Bugasaurus”. We had pared the tracks down to 15 and come up with a sequence. It was going to be a fantastic indy record. It would make them. I had tons of contacts in the indy record world and we could find a home with a cool, well-connected label. Maybe start with an English release then get the record played on every college station. Everything was in place.

I talked to the band about labels and tried, in vain, to warn them for the last time. They demanded a major label deal ignoring all of my warnings and logic. I made two calls and set up a showcase at SIR studios in Manhattan. The band played a set for a major label A & R guy. Halfway through the set he phoned the label owner and told him he found the label’s next big signing. For the story of how they met the label owner and got offered a deal see my first blog “It’s all about being famous”. This evenings blog is about what went wrong.

The Figgs signed with Imago Records. Now let’s pause for a moment and remember that the band has a great album done, it just needs to be mixed. Now the band has to deal with an imbecile A & R guy that knows nothing about music. He listens to the unmixed record and hears one major problem. Even though he listens very carefully, through an extremely expensive stereo at ear shattering volume he just can’t hear enough of HIS OPINION in the record. As a result it just sounds flat to him. So he immediately demands that the band rerecord the record. Then he demands that we use his sequence. When one of the band members points out that he sequenced the record with the first 5 songs in the key of D, one after the other, he looks at them like a dog watching a Fellini movie and says ” Tell the engineer to change the key of the songs in the mixes so that it’s not a problem anymore” . Now the band wants him dead.  

Of course the album is rerecorded and remixed. It does well but the label does not. The label folds in the middle of their second guaranteed album. So The Figgs move to Capitol Records, following the same A & R troglodyte. At the new, bigger label they are much smaller fish compared to the bands the label is making money off of.  Whole departments of Capitol Records listen to demos and rough tapes of the album that is in the works and come to the conclusion that the band is utterly lacking these departments opinions and should start over. The art department wants to change the name of the record. The radio promotions department wants to change the band’s idea for artwork. The distribution department wants the band to reschedule the release for 16 months from now when they are certain they will not be busy since they operate on a 15 month in the future calendar. The band gets stoned one night and decides that the most important thing to argue about with the label is what color the paper label of the band’s vinyl release will be even though vinyl is only 1% of the sales at this point in history. 9 Months later they release an album with the original title “Bando Macho” (an inside joke so it means nothing to the fans), Artwork that they never approved and makes no sense, a really cool rear cover photo which was the only thing the band did. They get their special colored label on the vinyl release and the label immediately drops them. The fact that they battled to a standstill with the label president over the color of the vinyl record’s label certainly contributed to his decision to drop them despite their guarantee of three records.

This illustrates many of the problems that come with every recording contract with a large label.  I can’t even claim that it only happens to smaller bands that have no clout with the labels. Phish signed with Electra when they were well on their way to being a stadium act. Electra treated them like crap.  For example, the band wanted to get some play for its videos. So their manager put pressure on the label to get them some attention at MTV.  Did the band get medium rotation? No. Did they get a few plays on the alternative video show? No. Instead they got an offer to be the house band for a pilot for a children’s show! The label even argued that they should be thankful since the show would pay each member a regular salary of $800 a week for the 13 week run if the show got picked up. Phish turned down the offer and were angry. The label was mystified. Perhaps the fact that the band was routinely selling out theaters and earning $100,000 a night had something to do with it.

Now let me touch on another point about recording contracts. It is a point that I will expand into a complete blog at a later date. Recording contracts are set up in a way that all the benefits go to the label while all the risk is the band’s. The band pays for everything but the label ends up owning it. The band pays for everything but the label decides everything that is important. Even with the advice of a talented knowledgable lawyer the band ends up signing a deal that largely is a massive con job. Why would any band do this? The labels control the gateway to fame. Once an artist becomes famous the relationship becomes a battle with the band winning sometimes and the label winning sometimes.  Fortunately for everyone reading this blog, the earth has opened up and swallowed the record labels. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of guys.

In the post web world the labels no longer hold all the cards nor do they control the keys to fame. The only traditional system that the labels still control is commercial radio. There is even light at the end of that tunnel since radio is in a confused desperate period. They have no idea what to program and the cracks have appeared under their feet – satellite radio, web radio, podcasts and many more trends have begun to destabilize commercial radio.  So the last of the Major label strangleholds is on the way out.  Where does this leave the record labels?

It leaves them stripped down to what they have always been, marketing companies. For decades the labels have argued that they were powerhouse artist development machines, starmakers (not to be confused with star fuckers!), distribution geniuses and creators of musical trends. Little of this bragging has been true. Certainly a label like Blue Note helped popularize certain jazz trends and Rough Trade/4Ad rewrote the rise of post punk. Dischord defined hardcore and rap, hell the rap labels have tattooed numerous street trends on multiple generations of kids but in the end they are just marketing companies. They don’t make great records they promote great records.

Now, with the web you too can promote great records. This blog proves it. In the nineties, your access to the advice of an experienced manager/label owner would depend solely on your connections. Now it depends on your broadband connection. So in the 21st century learning to be a rock star on a web blog is one of the magical ways to succeed at rock………….

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010     Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.                     ZMVTCS8QHAVF

Volunteers? Not the Jefferson Airplane song….


Ok readers I am looking for volunteers to submit a track or two of their music. It will appear on the site in my blog. I will then dissect the track and criticise ( or praise) songwriting, performing, recording etc.  If you decide to do this you should be thick-skinned and brave since I will most likely beat the stuffing out of your music before I am finished.  In return for volunteering to be publically humiliated you will get seen (actually heard) by a few thousand readers and get valuable advice from an old pro. I will also solicit comments from readers to round things out.

As I have stated numerous times I will not listen to demos since I would be deluged with music and have no time to do the blog which is the most helpful thing I can do for you. If interested send an mp3 that is less than 5 minutes long. The limit is one song per band or writer. In the email please make some sort of statement that says you are willing to have your stuff posted on the site and that you will not cry like a baby when I beat up your music. Send the music to ciceroqpublic(at)yahoo.com. I will collect songs for a few weeks then pick out one or two to post on the site. This should be a good way to wrap up the first series of blogs about recording. So everyone put their best Riff forward and we’ll all learn something about succeeding at rock…….

Brad Morrison

lesson #15 Godzilla Magpops VS THE PROMOTER….


So we’re gonna play a game. You get to be the band, hmmm let’s say your band name is Godzilla Magpops. I play the promoter. Then I’ll play the label. I play the kid that’s making movie and wants you to be in it. Then I get to be the big time manager with a tour.

I get to offer you deals and you get one response. If you respond correctly you move on.
Promoter: “Hey, I think you guys suck but my girlfriend really wants you to be on a bill. I got that fucked up Prog Rock band Mists of Avalon playing on the 23rd. You guys can play the bill, and I’ll give you $100 for the first set.”

Tick, tick, tick (this is the part where the fashion model points at the clock thingy)

“Ah..Ah…..Can We play second for $50 vs 20% of the door?”

“You’re kidding right? 20% of the door!? You think you’re Metallica? No way. 10%”
Tick, tick….
“OK we’ll take it.” Ding, ding, ding… you move on to the next level.

[When you do a VS. deal or what is called a versus deal you are agreeing to receive one of two possible outcomes, in this case…either $50 or 20% of what the door totals for the night. So if the door comes to $250 you get $50. If it is more than  $250 then you get 20%of the larger number . Since you agreed to 10% the door has to go above $500 for you to make more than $50.]

Next round….It’s the Record Label Round…. it’s worth half of a hill of beans and the fashion model spokesperson in this round is way hotter but would never date a person like you unless of course you get a record deal.
Label Dude calls….”Heya buddy boy, this is Slick Tawilliger from Turd Polisher Records. We love your band. We saw you guys at the Sunshine Superman festival and also on Chainsaw Rock night at The Turnstile. We think you’re the bees knees. We’d like to offer you a recording contract. We’ll sign you for 5 records, with an advance of $35,000 against 10 points. If that’s cool with you I can pop out of the dumpster in the alley behind your practice space in about ten minutes.”
“Turd Polisher!! I don’t know what to say. I guess I’ll see you at the dumpster.”
BZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. Wrong.

 But since you passed the first round you get one more reply.
“Hmm Turd Polisher huh? Didn’t you drop my favorite band? Nevermind, so you’re offering us 5 records guaranteed, that sounds cool but we wouldn’t take anything less than 75,000 against 15 points and we want full publishing payments….”
“Gee you drive a hard bargain. How about two records guaranteed, 50,000 to start against 12 points?”
“Hmm that sounds interesting but you forgot full publishing and Slick?
“Yeah?”
“Get a pencil and write down our lawyer’s number.”
Bingo….Lots of flashing lights…..
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Now I realize that most of this is meaningless. What is the game about? Is it about getting a gig? No. A record deal? No. An appearance in a movie? No. It’s about the basic way to talk shit when you negotiate. It doesn’t matter what the numbers are. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is all about. What matters is the way you respond to an offer.
Let me simplify it.
I say I will give you A
You say I want A +1 and B

I say I will give you A, B, C and some of Z
You say, thanks for A, B +2,C +1 and all of Z and some of Y.
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This blog is about basic negotiation skills. They are extremely important and whoever gets stuck being the mouthpiece for the band has to learn this system like the back of their hand. The philosophy behind this system is based upon some basic rules.

Rules of arguing out a deal…
1. They always offer something, anything, real and tangible first. They must go first.
Example – a promoter calls “Hey I got a slot open on the 12th what would you guys want? (he doesn’t make an offer) You reply with gibberish “I don’t know? What would we want?” ( you reply without saying anything of value) He says “Don’t be an asshole -how much do you guys want to play the opening set?” (now he has offered something real, the opening set, but he hasn’t mentioned money so you reply with more gibberish) “Gee, everyone knows I’m an asshole. I’m not sure I can act any other way. What’s the opening set pay?” This could go on for days since everyone has unlimited cell phone minutes. Eventually, right around the time he is considering choking his cat, he will give in and mention money. “Well I was thinking $150 to open.” Got him. He has offered something real.And he has offered something first. Now you move  on to rule two.

2. After your adversary offers something you reply by adding to it and then asking for something else.
“Gee $150? I was thinking that we should play second set, give the first set to The Baboons ( a band from outta town that you are trying to hook up with a gig so they will help you out in return) and we would have a $250 guarantee. You can keep adding to your demands but remember you are trying to better his initial offer. If you actually talk the guy into paying your rent for the balance of the decade and giving you his girlfriend you may just negotiate him into being your enemy.

3. Learn the value of silence. DO NOT NEGOTIATE WITH YOURSELF. Any good businessman will try to use silence when working a deal. If you are not careful, and you are not on your game they will use silence to bring out your doubts. Then you will be negotiating with yourself. When this happens you will discover that negotiating with yourself is a downhill game. This is the way it usually goes.
You are bargaining. He says how much? You say $1250, or blue or I want to produce or whatever. His response is total silence. The clock ticks, the world turns and still no reply. Now you start to wonder if you overplayed your hand. “did I ask too much?” You open your mouth and start to prop up your demand.”You know we are really worth it. We have two new singles out and blah, blah, blah…”  You are now cheerfully negotiating with yourself. He will then add fuel to the fire by egging you on. Pretty soon you’ll be painting his Yacht on weekends and playing the gig for free. Here’s a story to illustrate this point.
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I was negotiating the Figgs recording contract with Imago BMG. I had flown out to LA and hammered out a deal with the label’s lawyers.It was a typical situation, my lawyer, the band’s lawyer and a couple of label lawyers locked in a room for 10 hours. As usual I chainsmoked which pissed off everyone and as a result I got what I wanted -Three records guaranteed, $350,000 for the first record, full publishing, 90,000 tour support in the first six months, a war chest to bribe radio, all the fun stuff. What we did not work out was creative control. I was told I would have to negotiate all of those deal points with Terry Ellis the label President. I mentioned Terry in my first blog entry. He used to manage Jethro Tull and Billy Idol and founded Chrysalis Records.

After I returned from LA Terry’s assistant called to say he would be phoning me that evening to work out the final details of the deal. The music business has lots of assistants that do all the work and then call people to announce the fact that So and So would be calling at some future time.

So that evening the phone rings and I answer.
“Hold please for Terry Ellis.”

“Brad, how are you? Were all the arrangements in LA acceptable?”

Terry is slick. We talk about his wine collection and his race horse collection.  I tell him some gossip about one of his ex employees.  Then we get down to business.

“So, Terry let’s talk about creative issues. ”

“Certainly. What did you have in mind”

“Come now Terry, you don’t get off that easy. You go first. What’s the label’s position.”

Terry decides to throw me a bone of no value.

“Well we would like to pick the producer, pick all the songs, and get to remix with anyone we like.”

This is him basically saying that the label will control everything and the band gets no say.

“Gee that’s unfortunate Terry since I’m certain that the label the Figgs sign with will allow the band to pick all the songs, pick their producer and there will be absolutely no remixing of the album.”

This is standard banter with each side saying they want it all.  Soon he starts to narrow it down.

“So why don’t we talk about just one thing and try to get that issue settled. What percentage of the songs would the band be willing to let the label pick?”

This is a clever opening. It assumes that we are going to let the label choose any of the songs. So if I carry on talking about the percentages I have already given them some control. Now this brings us to rule number 4 (always have your position- that is to say what you are willing to take – worked out ahead of time) I will cover rule #4 after I finish this story.  The band had already decided that they would allow the label to pick up to three songs on each album.

“Well, Terry we would be willing to let the label pick two songs for each album.”

There is no reply. After about ten seconds it starts to get a little uncomfortable. After twenty seconds the urge to speak becomes a powerful incentive. The normal reaction is to want to fill in the vacuum. To say something, anything. What could I possibly say that would help us?

“Well the band really understand their music and they are the best judge of their strongest material…” Gee that’s kinda lame. I don’t need to sell him on the band’s talent. He is already giving them a deal.  A more normal reaction would be to backpedal

“Hmmm,….well… we might be willing to consider another arrangement…”    The cold hard reality is that ANYTHING I say will make me lose ground and appear weak to MYSELF.  So what did I do? I just waited. I waited four and a half minutes. Try it. Pick up the phone. Look at the clock, then stare in the mirror for four and a half minutes. It’s a really long time.

Finally Terry said…”Ok Brad. You win. You can have what you want.”

“What exactly do you mean Terry?”

“You can control the record. Pick the producer, pick the songs and do the mixes. I’ll trust you. Let’s get together to pick the single. ” I was stunned. A couple of years later I asked him about that conversation. The Figgs contract was long gone and we were just hanging out as friends. He explained that he had never had anyone nail that particular  negotiating trick right off the bat and he was impressed so he let me run the show.  A rare win but it proves the point.

Try it. Pick out the weakest member of your band. Ask them where they want to go for dinner. When they tell you just remain silent and stare at them. Watch what happens. They will start to do the talking and they will start to negotiate with themselves. When you work out a deal don’t be the weak guy that negotiates with himself.

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So this brings me to the last point of my rules for negotiation.

4. Always work out your deal before you start to negotiate.  If you are going to negotiate a recording contract get your shit together, find out what the possibilities might be and discuss them with the band. If you are negotiating a gig fee have an idea what your band might be worth in that situation.  If someone tries to get you to bargain without doing your homework try to get out of it long enough to sort out your position. This is not always possible but if you spend some time working out a basic framework of what you want then you will always do better.  Be careful not to ask for the sky and the moon. The point of negotiation is to better a deal you are being offered. If you ask for too much you may end up with nothing which is a step backwards.

All of these rules are techniques that can be learned. If you learn them so they become second nature then you are on your way to Succeeding at Rock……………………………..

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

Lesson #13 Label? What Label?


I’ve gotten quite a few requests to write about Labels. Record Labels that is. Most of the requests come from readers that would like me to discuss how you start a label. This is a topic I know a great deal about since I started a few along the way. In many ways the reasons I had for starting up a label had more to do with advancing the interests of a particular act rather than owning a powerhouse label that helped decide what played out of your radio. The last label I founded was called Absolute A Go Go Records (’87). It was far and away the most serious and successful of the labels I either helped start (Incas records ’83) or started on my own (precedent records ’81) For a good portion of my life owning a label was like being in a band or going on tour, it was just what you did. Everyone did it, didn’t they?

Looking back I now realize that starting up a record label had a long and honorable history and the era that I was a part of, the rise of that evil movement ALT ROCK, has more in common with the way bands become successful now in the internet age than the 40’/50’s R & B single jukebox era. That means that the promotions and distribution problems I encountered are essentially the same ones you’ll run into now.

So here we come to the question, how do you start a label? I am going to approach the question from the angle that you, the reader, would like me to explain, in detail, how to actually set a label up and run it.
It’s quite simple. Make up a name, like MegaMonsterHit Records and go to your county government office. There you fill out a form saying that you are starting a business. Hmm, now you gotta check those little government generated boxes, Sole proprietorship? (this means you’re the boss and the only boss. You’re the label and the label is you) Partnership? (You and your buddy(ies) are gonna own it which means you will eventually want to kill each other ) Corporation Sub Chap S? (this is like a baby corporation. Until you have a relationship with an ACCOUNTANT this is not the way you will go) or finally Corporation. (Yes, that evil giant octopus business that is part of the conspiracy to destroy the world. Once again you don’t want this until your ACCOUNTANT gives you a good reason why). Now that you’ve got that over you give the county people $25 bucks (about) and they give you a business certificate. This is just a piece of paper that lets you walk into a bank and open a checking account. So go do that and come back. I’ll wait. Ok, now you’re in business…let’s move on.

Soon you will need a bar code. That the little box with lines in it that you scan at check out. Without this item you can’t get your CD’s in any real store. The real name for this little baby is UPC code.

Here’s a link that covers that topic:
http://guides.wsj.com/small-business/starting-a-business/how-to-get-upc-codes-for-your-products-2/
It can cost you about $750 bucks to get your own bar code. So you put that off until you absolutely have to do it. Remember though that it takes about 6 weeks to get one. That can feel like an eternity when you are waiting to launch a record. There are also some businesses out there that will give you a bar code using there master bar code number. This means you can get one for $50. That’s ok for your first release but if you are really gonna sell records you will need a bar code for your label. if you’re a hyper christian and you believe that the bar code systems is the mark of the devil and that is all controlled by the anti-christ then I suggest you write a few hit singles that say exactly how upset you are about it and that should balance some of your bad karma.

So now you’ve got the tools to actually do business and create a product. As I write this, physically manufacturing CDs is still essential. Sixty percent of music that is sold is still on CDs rather than downloads so for the foreseeable future you will be in the business of making CDs.

Now we got to stop and ask some basic questions.

Why are you starting this label? Is it just to promote your own band? Is it to help you make a mark on the local scene? Are you aiming to work your way into the big labels as a career? Are you starting your label with the ambition to become the next Richard Branson and build a mega monster multinational business. All of these are good reasons and there are quite a few more.

To add to these questions you’ve got to ask yourself are you going to sign other bands? Are you going to produce? All of the answers to these questions are going to help determine what you do to make your label successful.  For this blog I’ll assume that you are starting the label to release your own band, release projects that you produce and with the ambition for the label to continue on after you’ve reached enlightenment and become a eerie ball of light that we all worship.  I won’t follow this through all the way to the part where Mr. Spock does the mind meld with you and you bugger Simon Cowell.

So now you’ve got a label, and I’ll make another assumption and say you’ve got an album mixed waiting to be released. This is going to be the big step up as you launch your label and rise to fame.  We’ll also assume that your band gigs regularly and that you can gig in a couple of cities within spitting distance of your home base.

So you’ve finished the record now you scratch together $750  and send the project to disc makers with a list of songs for them to put on the back and a picture of the band ROCKING THE WORLD for the cover.  WRONG. You are far from ready to put the record out.

There are numerous things that you gotta do before you release a record. Skipping any of them is a good way to insure that your small chance of selling lots of records becomes much smaller.  If you do follow these tips you will be set up for a decent shot at selling enough CD’s to get your money back, which is the key to running a label for longer than one month. If you just wish to blow $4000 on putting out a CD and you’re dying to have 2000 copies of the CD in your mom’s basement for the rest of eternity then you should just plow ahead.

Things to do to set up a release, either your own band or any band you sign to your label.

1. Have the finished, mixed down, album MASTERED.  This means that a MASTERING STUDIO will take the recordings and change the EQ and Compression. They will make sure all the songs are at the same level and are as LOUD AS POSSIBLE. (this is a modern mastering thing and for rock it’s a must) They will make sure that all of the mixes blend together from the standpoint of playback EQ. This is essential. It will make the difference between an OK sounding demo and a POLISHED ALBUM THAT WILL ROCK THE WORLD. I will probably cover what you should do during MASTERING and how, on a basic level, it is done on another night.  Great MASTERING STUDIOS are extremely expensive. You can’t afford them. Don’t worry about it. If you post a comment looking for a reasonable mastering studio I will email you a couple of names.  You should be able to get a project MASTERED on the cheap for about $500. If you know a really good, pro studio with nice pro gear you can ask the engineer to Fix your record. Take it from me, they always need fixing. DO NOT USE THE SAME STUDIO WHERE YOU MIXED. If you do it is generally a waste of your money.

2. Plan and Design the CD cover art. This must involve someone that understands graphic arts and printing. Creating a great CD cover takes as much talent as writing a great song. Your package should stand out when it is in the CD rack. It should look professional and IT SHOULD SAY SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR BAND IT SHOULD HELP GIVE YOU AN IMAGE AND MAKE THE BAND LOOK SUCCESSFUL. Look at the covers of bands that are in your style of music. Which ones are great? Why?  Imagine the CD cover as a T Shirt. Is it a smokin’ T Shirt that will make your girlfriend look like a million bucks?  Some labels have built up the label image by having every release for the label have a certain “look” to the CD art. 4AD in England and Dischord in the US are two labels that used this trick to make the label famous and help the artists sell.

 Part of the artwork process is working out credits and liner notes.  I personally believe that a CD package that has something to read, something that fills out the band’s aura and image is a great help in turning a casual listener into a hardcore fan. Lots of bands have done this kinda thing well, look at Beatles (after Revolver), Rolling Stones (69 -79, with Sticky Fingers perhaps being one of the greatest LP packages ever), Pink Floyd, Genesis (Lamb Lies down on Broadway) The Clash (Sandinista)…….

3. Prepare a promo list. What’s a promo list? It is a list of names and addresses of writers, promoters and radio stations. You must compile this list before you send the record out to be manufactured. You also need to set aside some money to pay for postage. If you don’t do these two things before you order the record they will not get done later and the record will do nothing to help you get famous or help your label survive and flourish. It’s ok to only set aside $200 bucks it doesn’t have to be 3 grand.  But you must spend some money promoting the record. It is better to order less copies at first, like 500 instead of a thousand in order to free up some money to promote the record.  Not having enough records to sell is NEVER A PROBLEM. If you put out a record that goes wild and starts selling like cookies at a fat farm you will order more and they will arrive and that will be that. Never worry about how many copies you ordered. Only worry about how you are going to sell them. My record label Absolute A Go Go Records would always give away at least 750 copies of every release, usually more.  You want to send copies to any writer that writes about bands like yours, any college station that plays any rock at all, any promoter that fits into the band’s current plans for expansion. Don’t send records to big commercial radio stations. Don’t send records to Rolling Stone. Don’t send records to promoters that are far outside the circuit that you have set up by following the instructions from my earlier blogs.

Ok so now you have done these things because you are crazy enough to believe me. (I did after all do this kinda thing for about fifteen years) There are a few things that you need to understand in order to run a record label. It doesn’t matter if the label is for your stuff or for band’s you find in the frozen food freezer at Wal Mart these are fundamental truths.

First, nine out of ten records will not sell. This applies to your band as well. Face up to it or you will never succeed at rock. Most of the records that you release will only serve as a very expensive but necessary calling card to help that particular band’s career. Get used to this idea before you spend your first nickel. If you don’t you are gonna end up depressed and walk away from something that you could have done successfully if you had the correct attitude.

Like I just said most records don’t sell. You should be trying hard to sell them but in the end if you sell enough to break even, lose a little cash or make a little cash then you are doing it right. That can’t be right!!! Well it’s true. Let me explain why. If you look at any label that survives and perhaps thrives they have operated in this manner. The secret here is that when you release ten records and nine of them flop you still have one that sells. The one that sells will make mountains of money and will pay for the other nine, plus a month in Rio, a new Mercedes and the legal fees from the lawsuit that the successful act’s drummer creates when he supplies Jack Daniels to his hometown middle school. Get used to this fact or don’t start a label. If the act that goes big is your band, great! Congratulations! But the odds are against it. If, on the other hand, your band releases 6 albums over five years and finally the last one sells well then the label served its purpose. The most likely way your band will make it big is to slowly, steadily become popular and grow to the point where a great song can become a hit record.

In a music market where downloads are rampant and will continue to be a fact of life it will be extremely hard to make money with a label.  Instead you need to view the label and the CD’s it releases as a machine that helps the bands get ahead. The real cash will come from concerts.

Since this is the new reality it is only a matter of time before labels will demand, and get, a cut of the band’s live money. Perhaps your label will be the one that rewrites that part of the Rock Book.

This brings me to another point. The price of your new releases WILL BE $4.99 or $5.99!!!! This is not negotiable. Each release that is over a year old will be priced at $3.99!!!! The days when CD’s sold for $15.00 or $20.00 are over. The major labels will realize this fact when they are dead and buried. You need to realize it now.

Two years ago a Blue Grass band called Fetish Lane ended up hanging out at my house after a concert. They hung around drinking heavily and playing old country songs on guitar, fiddle and banjo. Nice guys living the dream of being Hillbillies. (I’m not sure what planet this dream comes from) This band played lots of hippy festivals during the summer. They had a couple of CD’s out and they were bragging about the fact that their CD’s sold about 2000 each per year. In Hillbilly land 2000 records is almost a gold record. With the cost of recording and manufacturing the CD and paying the girlfriend that hauled the merchandise table around they figured that they were making about $5000 a year on CD sales.  Like everyone else they sold their CDs for $15.  I was in a preachy mood so I ended up arguing with them until the sun came up about the price of their CD.  Since they were living the Hillbilly Dream they did the idiotic thing and decided to listen to me. They lowered the price of their CD to $4.99.  In the next year they sold TEN TIMES THE CDs! They made four times the money and, most importantly,  they had TWENTY THOUSAND fans listening to the CD. Fans started buying extra copies for friends and relatives. If you are selling your CD for $3.99 you are doubling your money on each sale since even the most expensive CD pressing deal will cost a lot less than $2.00 per disc to manufacture and package. The idea that something you buy for a buck or two, must sell for $15 or $20 is insane. Most other businesses are happy if they can make 10 or 20 percent. The music business screams bloody murder if they don’t make 1500% or 2000% on their product. Smarten up. If you sell your CD for five bucks kids will buy it to support the band and not bother with the hassle of downloading it and ending up with a burnt disc with no art.

More on running a label in future blogs………………………………………………………………….

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Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010