Why the Flamin’ Groovies are cool……………….


So do you know about the Flamin’ Groovies? It’s likely that you haven’t heard of them since they are still relatively obscure.  The fact that there is a chance that you’ve heard of them is a major improvement compared to thirty or forty years ago, that is to say, when the Flamin’ Groovies were still a band. They made a few albums. They were signed to a major for a nanosecond.

The coolest trash in San Francisco.........

Then they made their own recordings and released them on little labels. They went through personnel changes. They became hip among  hipsters in France and still no one paid attention. They were ahead of the curve and they could write songs. Here is a video of them on French TV in 1972. The song,  “Slow Death” is in the grand tradition of drug songs like “Waiting for my Man”, “Sister Morphine” etc.

http://youtu.be/EL3pP29N-Wc

The song even got them banned from airplay.  This is often a step towards glory in the sun, success, stadium shows. In their case it never worked. The point of today’s blog is that there is a difference between being cool and being successful. The Groovies are cool. They wrote some great songs which have survived to be covered by other cool bands. They were never successful, at least not in the terms of becoming rock stars.  They did all the things beyond coolness wrong. They signed with a label that promoted kid pop. Since they weren’t kid pop they were ignored by the label.

Don’t take this little tale in the wrong way. Cool is great. Cool is very important. The world needs bands like the Flamin’ Groovies, or Big Star, or Mission of Burma or The Velvet Underground. These bands show us the way to creating music that is new and exciting. My point is that more often than not these bands aren’t very successful.  Instead they are influential. Their music echoes through other bands that go on to make it big.

Big Star is another case of too cool to be huge. They, once again, got signed to the wrong label. They were a Beatlesque band with soul roots signed to a large southern soul label. When I first heard them in 1979 they were completely unknown since they sold less than 3000 records total. They were a hidden treasure. People passed around tapes of their songs from hand to hand. They never made it. When I met Alex Chilton, one of the two writers in the band, he had given up playing for almost a decade and was living in a tent in the woods.  Eventually the girl pop band the bangles would have a hit with alex’s song September Girls. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, another of their tracks became the hit theme song for That 70’s Show, performed by Cheap Trick.  Once again cool wins through but not for the band that was cool.

Too cool for words

The ultimate combo is an ultra cool band that explodes all the way to the top.  If that is you send me your tracks so I can come along for the ride. If not, learn about cool and learn how to make it your own since it will open doors and pack in the fans as you struggle to succeed at rock………..

©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

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

Jonathan Coulton and Creative Commons copyright….


Tonight’s blog is a complete change of pace. I have started to collect opinions and comments from established artists to add to this blog.  For the moment I am creating the questions and topics and deciding which artists to ask to comment. In the future I hope that some of the questions and topics will come from you, the reader…

Tonight’s blog which is just an interlude between longer postings about the inner workings of a recording contract, introduces the changing face of copyrights in the age of the web. Anyone with some sense of vision sees that the universal distribution of knowledge, music, art, writing, all of the various elements of the web, will bring about a complete redefinition of the artist’s relationship to the commercial exploitation of his art.

Certainly the question isn’t if change is coming, rather it is where will these changes take us?

I asked Jonathan Coulton to discuss his progressive attitude towards controlling his recordings on the web. For those of you who haven’t heard of Jonathon yet he is one of the more interesting Post Guided by Voices , Lo Fi musicians breaking through the inertia  of Nirvana and programmed pop.  His songwriting combined with a generous and healthy attitude about giving everyone access to his music helped him break out and create some purely web driven hits like “Code Monkey”  and “Still Alive” (A song released as the final dirge on the underground hit video game Portal).  In short Jonathan is a talented songwriter that is comfortable with the changes that the web has offered and has altered his approach to line up his personal musical strengths with the power of the web.

I asked Jonathan a question via email while a little bit altered and completely exhausted. As a result his reply is much better than my question. Thank god for catching a break some days……….

Jonathan – your music has spread through the web, first through association with gaming programs and then through peer to peer trading. You have been a vocal advocate of “Fair Use” copyrights, rather then the “I own it and you gotta buy it model” – how has this helped you succeed and how might it help others to build connections with fans? (I intended to ask about Creative Commons copyright. Like I said I was under the influence of stupidity that night)

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“I’d actually say that it went the other direction, first my music spread across the web through word of mouth, and that led to my association with Valve and the song for Portal. And I think that’s a really important point – for a musician who is just starting out there is nothing more important than exposure. That’s why I released my music with a Creative Commons license that allowed people to share the music freely, and to create new works using the music, as long as those things happened in the non-commercial realm. My plan was to let the music speak for itself, to let it find my fans for me, and then figure out how to monetize whatever success I had in that effort.

 
Of course, to my surprise I started making money directly from the music before I had to figure out how to monetize it. As I went through the year-long Thing a Week project releasing a new song every week, I would post each song for free to my blog but I would also put it in my online store. I made it clear that while it was fine if you wanted to get the song for free, I was trying to make a living as a musician, so I’d prefer if you bought it. Many people chose to buy it even though they didn’t have to. Many people chose to buy it later after they had downloaded it for free and listened for a while and decided they really liked it. And later when I started touring and selling tshirts and CDs, many people came to those shows and bought the merchandise. None of that would have happened if I had kept the songs locked up tight for fear of them being “stolen.” I figured, worst case scenario a million people hear my music without paying for it – that’s actually not a terrible situation at all, in fact it’s kind of awesome.
 
So I really think that whether you agree with the details of the Creative Commons license or not, it’s important to let your music get around out there. It’s important to make the process of people discovering your music as fluid and friction-free as possible. Once you are willing to leave a little money on the table and not worry about squeezing every bit of profit out of every interaction a fan has with you and your work, you are free to do interesting and fun things. Can I use your song in a YouTube video I’m making? Sure. Can I send a copy of my favorite songs of yours to all my friends? Absolutely. A great deal of energy comes out of transactions like these, and I believe that energy can’t help but translate into actual cash somewhere down the road.”
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I’ll take a moment to expand on one comment that he makes ” to create new works using the music, as long as those things happened in the non-commercial realm”. This concept, an idea that is the core idea of a good portion of hip hop recording is the future of pop. How long before musician start to play hot potato with musical ideas and pass them around, with each contributor adding a piece and passing it on until the music itself feels undeniably finished. How compelling can a collective piece of art be?  Certainly the power of a song is amplified once you free it from the bonds of being a commercially exploited CD in the mold of music from the 1990’s.  This is one of many ideas that are coming to the surface as the web reworks how musicians succeed at rock……………………………
©Creative Commons license Brad Morrison/ Billiken Media 2010. Portions of this blog may be used in part or whole to create another work of art on the condition that any and all subsequent exploitations and copies of this work are non commercial in character and bring no monetary gain or remuneration to the third-party involved………Let art rule and rise above……………

The ultimate prize, a record deal!


Well I’ve been dancing around this topic since I started the blog 5 months ago. I haven’t written this blog for some unknown reason. It is certainly not due to lack of interest from you all. The emails and votes for a blog on a record deal have been relentless.  So now I will give in and outline the inner details of doing a deal with the devil.

Through the decades I have managed quite a few bands. Every one of them has lusted after a recording contract. After the first few contracts I developed the habit of telling all of these starry-eyed children that getting signed to a recording contract was the worst possible fate. All of them laughed. All of them ignored me. Did this bother me? No, it was just me covering my moral ass. If I hadn’t warnedthem, with what I know about recording contracts, then I would have been guilty indeed. All of the musicians I represented got what they wished for. All of them regretted it in one way or another.  In some cases it destroyed them and ruined the band. Oh well, I warned them. Now I will warn you.. [Bad Brains -Pay to cum]

Listen carefully -You do not need a record deal. You do not want a recording contract. You will be making a big mistake if you sign a recording contract. Are there exceptions to this? Yes, of course. If by some strange twist of the time space continuum you, the reader are a guy named Elvis and the guy giving you advice goes by the name of Col. Parker then ignore me. If your name is Jimi, you play a lefty strat, and the most important fact it is June 1966 in your world then go right ahead and sign anything anyone offers as long as it comes with a cash advance that is available now.  For all of the rest of you….DO NOT SIGN A MAJOR LABEL RECORDING CONTRACT!!! Is that clear?  [The Who -Dr. Jimmy]

Now I know you will all ignore me. So be it.  If you are being offered a major label deal then it is extremely important to keep in mind that any major label deal is ridiculously complex. YOU MUST HAVE A REAL LAWYER INVOLVED! That means that your uncle Taco is out of the deal. Further you should have a professional manager involved and you should be taking his advice. If you do not have a manger then contact me and I will pass along some contacts or tell you what my consulting fee would be. (I can hear the wheels turning in the minds of many of my readers. Do not attempt to fake a deal in order to get an email full of names from me. It won’t work. The first thing I will do is contact the label and confirm the basic situation. Sorry, I applaud your creative thinking though) The advice I just offered is deadly serious. If you sign a contract without the advice of a real, experienced lawyer then you will get fucked. If you don’t believe me then think about it this way. If you are offered a deal and it is negotiated by a real lawyer and a real manager you will get fucked. With this is mind what will happen to you without their advice? You will get screwed so bad that someone else will end up owning everything including the band dog, the band groupies and that beat up piece of shit guitar that you keep around because you learned to play on it.  Enough said.

Now I am not going to explain how to negotiate a recording contract, that will take a few blogs and I hope to get to that soon. Before we approach that topic I must explain how a recording contract works. For those of you taking prescription antidepressants now would be a good time to check that you have dosed yourself.

OK let’s go.  Let’s assume that a major label wants to sign you. How does something like this happen, in real terms, how does it go down?         [Bowie TVC15]

To reach this stage you will have done all the preliminaries, showcases, meetings, presspacks sent and read, managers and label dudes (and dudettes) making endless calls, rumors, fistfights, depression, elation…so now what happens?

Generally the label starts by issuing a “deal memo”. This is a letter that they send to your lawyer and manager. It is one page and it is a summary of the deal that they are about to offer. IT IS NOT A CONTRACT. It outlines the basics of the deal. That is to say it outlines the basics of the deal they would love you to sign since you haven’t negotiated with them yet. It will tell you how big the advance they will give you for the first few records. It will tell you the total length of the contract and it will outline their offer for your publishing. If they are not attempting to buy your songs then it will address how they plan to pay for the use of your songs on the records.

Your lawyer will turn this offer down and  begin to negotiate with the label.  Every young band will panic at this point and attempt to override their lawyer management team and sign the deal as first offered.  They don’t want the label to change its mind. The band has been hoping and fighting for a deal for so long they talk themselves into believing that negotiating the deal is risky and may drive off the label. Actually the opposite is true. The label expects to negotiate. It is their favorite part of the process. If the band doesn’t try to sell itself high then the label can become doubtful. If the band doesn’t know in its heart that it is the greatest band on earth then how will the fans believe it? Taking a label’s first offer is a sure-fire way to speed up the process of the label losing faith in the band.

So you negotiate with the label and finally come to an agreement. At this point the label sends multiple copies of the 60 page contract. The band sits down and signs them all in multiple places. NOW YOU ARE SIGNED. What does a deal like this say? [Velvet Underground “White Light, White Heat”]

Every record company contract is different. Every deal is different but there are many things that are common to all the deals. These are the things that count. So I will explain them in as basic a fashion as I can.  If you understand the basics of how deals like this work then you will be prepared to open your mouth in a meeting and maybe get what you want or need in a deal. This applies to both big label deals and small label deals.

Every recording contract is designed to lock the band into only recording for the label.  As a result the deal will be split into two halves, the first covering what the band must do, can do and cannot do when it comes to recording. The second half will cover how the band gets paid for its services as recording artists. In addition there may be a third section covering specific commitments to promote the records and to provide tour support.  Finally the contract may cover song publishing and include a complete publishing contract. I will not cover the details of publishing in tonight’s blog. You can check out some of what is involved in my two blogs about publishing royalties. [Yes -Close to the Edge]

Part one the section that covers how long the band is bound to the contract is always structured as a series of options.  What the hell does that mean? Well it isn’t like choosing one item from column A and two from Column B at the chinese take out. (if you have no experience with chinese take out then you are either  an underage hippie kid living at a remote commune, playing a hemp guitar, or not a musician)

The options in a recording contract work like this – the band must make the first record for the label. The label can take a god awful long time putting it out. You must wait. Once they release the recordings the clock starts to tick on the band’s option. Let’s say that it’s a one year option. This means that within one year of the album’s release the label must tell you if they would like another record from you. It is the label’s option not the band’s. It is NEVER the band’s option. [Jackson Five -I want you back] If they say that they would like to “excercise the next option” then the band makes another album.  Most major label record deals have TEN options. In practical terms this means the band is committed to the record label for up to 15 years. (California has restrictions on deals that are this burdensome so most labels use NY law to get around this anti-slavery law. Think carefully about this sentence….yes….a recording contract is a form of slavery…remember I warned you….)

Often bands will talk about getting “three records guaranteed”. This means that the label commits to exercising the first two options after the first release. In practical terms this is never true. The label can usually get out of the options by paying off a penalty. [Iggy Pop- The Passenger] If the label decides it doesn’t want to release any more records from a band, any band, they will stubbornly stick to their guns.  Even though the band may have language in their deal that states that the label must do it in practical terms this will not make them release the record. They will pay the penalties, no matter how large, and move on. Even a sizable non-release penalty payment is cheaper than releasing a full-scale release. When you add in the fact that an unwanted release would require lots of staff time, time that could be spent on a record the label is excited about, then you can start to see why they do this.

So a contract that guarantees three albums will be released doesn’t mean three albums will be released. What does it mean? Well it shows that the label was enthusiastic enough when they signed the deal to commit serious money to the project of developing the band.  So deals like this primarily measure how committed and excited the label was about the band during the negotiation process and little more. All bands and all labels rise and fall in their enthusiasm and this affects the way albums are promoted.

Now we’ve established that the contract revolves around options and that options are set to certain time periods and all of this is nailed down to the concept of  a “record”. This concept is certainly being tested in the modern market. Bands no longer go into the studio and put together a 10 song, 34 minute vinyl LP (the standard from 1967 ’til 1987) nor do bands go into the studio and put together a 12-14 song , 45 minute Compact disc (the standard from 1987 ’til 2003). I think we can also rule out the old school idea that bands go into a studio and cut two tracks which are turned into a single.

 [Mission of Burma “Academy Fight Song”]

The current environment is one of changing standards where bands are releasing individual tracks as downloads, collections of varying lengths in every format they can concoct and in the near future streaming the live creation of recorded music through peer to peer networks. [Bad Brains “Banned in DC”]

Despite the state of chaos and the coming changes labels seem to be sticking to locking a band’s output into the concept of albums and collections of songs. [Deep Purple “Pictures of Home”]. No matter how a contract is structured all of the band’s recorded output will be controlled by the label for the duration of the contract. If a contract did not accomplish this there would be no reason for the label to enter into the deal.  In short the band will only record for the label and every single note put to tape during the contract will be owned by the label.

In this section of the deal the contract will also cover who controls the different aspects of creativity. Here’s a short list of things that will be covered.

1. Who’s songs are going to be recorded?  Are there going to be any Bob Dylan songs? Is a ghost songwriter going to be employed? Can the label force songs on the band? Often the label will require the band to submit demos and then the label will pick out the tracks to be recorded. Sometimes the selection will be by mutual agreement. When the deal is structured in this manner the band will discover that it is very hard to win an argument on song selection with the label.

[Bob Marley “Crisis”]

2. Who will produce the recordings? Here is another case where the label will demand complete control. For all bands without a hit the label will use the producer to control the band and micromanage the band’s recordings. Once again if the band gets the label to agree to a situation where the producer is agreed by both sides then the band will have a great deal of trouble over ruling the label. [Love “Live and Let Live”] In many cases a band will attempt to be self producing. That is to say they want to make their own records and do their own tracking, mixing and editing with the help of a buddy who is an engineer. This kind of provision is very hard to get from a label for the simple reason that all major labels know that this is an extremely bad idea for any new band. The label knows that the band has no experience creating a record that will compete sonically on the radio. If the band makes this point a do or die point of negotiation the label will act as if they are giving in and just demand more flexibility to remix. Then under the cover of darkness they will “remix” the record by tearing it to pieces and producing the product they wanted all along. [Rolliing Stones “Sympathy for the Devil”]

3. The budgets for recording of each optional record. The language that covers the recording budgets will name maximums that the label is willing to put up for recording. They will often include language that allows the label to exceed these numbers but only with the written permission of the label.

4. The budget for the total amount of money to be advanced to the band. This will be a large sum which will include many smaller sums like recording budget, tour support, personal advances to band members, allowances for gear purchases etc. [Santana “Black Magic Woman”]

5 Budgets and maximum allowances of money to pay producers. Once again these sums will be controlled solely by the label. In general the producer will be paid an advance payment which will be part of the money that he will earn when the record sells. THIS MONEY AND THE ROYALTY POINTS COMES OUT OF THE BAND’S SHARE!

6. Allowances and advances set aside for the band’s manager. This amount is usually negotiated by the manager as he works out the deal. This is a blatant conflict of interest on the part of the manager and is, as a result, standard practice in the music business.

There are other items that are often included in the first section of a recording contract. I’m certain I am forgetting a few but it doesn’t really matter. What is extremely important to understand is that the number of options, the guarantee of options, the total contract length will all determine how long you may be locked into a label.

When a label is courting a band they will be the most charming, supportive, understanding, coolest people who you have ever met. This view will change once you begin to work with the label to create your first album. I promise that any label will be much less attractive once the deal is over. Always keep this in mind.

 Without exception the area of the contract that covers options and budgets is the part that gets a band licking their greasy chops. It is very easy for these numbers to add up to over a million dollars for the first option.  This is what lures the band in and gets them to sign.[Beatles- 8 days a week]

Now here is the fact that puts all of this in the proper perspective. Everything that is done to create, manufacture and promote the record, everything that is done to pay off the business, all of the advertising, all of the advances , all of the tour support, all of the gear allowances, all of the catered food and press events, all of the plane tickets given to writers, all of the cash put up to print up t shirts, everything in every possible way that is paid for by the label ultimately comes out of the band’s cut of money. Go back and read that again. What does this mean? EVERYTHING DONE TO MAKE THE RECORD AND PROMOTE IT IS PAID FOR BY THE BAND OUT OF THEIR ROYALTIES!!!

Think about this fact. It the fundamental truth about record deals. The band pays for everything out of the royalties that the band MIGHT receive.  As a result of this the way a recording contract is structured the average musician in a successful band will not only make no money from making records they will spend years OWING THE LABEL MONEY!!!

[Grand Funk “I’m your captain”]

I will explain how this works in the next installment when I cover royalty payments.  Let me close by saying that it often works out like this :

Producer $50,000

Recording Studio $200,000

Engineers $75,000

Manager  $140,000

Each crew member $12,000

remix engineer $40,000

Mastering studio $20,000

Band member $7500 and a new guitar, amp and a few pedals

Ask yourself do you want to give the best you’ve got to give, perhaps the best you will ever give since you are in your prime, in return for $7500, a new guitar and amp and a year’s worth of crappy catered food as you make an album?

[Gang of Four “Anthrax]

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

It’s all about being famous again…..


For those of you that are following along rather than just reading random postings tonight’s blog strays from the promised path. I will get to beating up Reader Oliver in the next blog. For the moment I will take a moment out to revisit the original post, “it’s all about being famous”. This is the most popular posting on my blog. Night after night it gets the most hits. I suspect that this is the result of being the first “lesson”. It may be that another factor is that it is the most important point I make in this blog.

There is no question that this concept has been debated heavily through the years. Once again I am going to come down on the rock star side of things and say it really is all about being famous.  If you would like to putter around in obscurity then please don’t read my blog. This isn’t a value judgement, well, maybe it is a bit of a value judgement but it isn’t a monumental denunciation from moral high ground. There is music made at all levels of fame and success and it is all valid. That’s not what this blog is about. instead this blog is designed to be a lecture series for those of you that want to make it big with your band.

Making it big, becoming famous, getting a hit, breaking through whatever you choose to call it is not just luck. There is certainly luck involved in making it but luck doesn’t rule the game. Instead the proper attitude, actions and philosophies allow some people to weight the luck in their favor.

My five-year old son loves the song “Hey Jude”. He lives in a home without TV. He lives in a home that is saturated with music. He has never questioned this he just accepts it. He is, after all, five. Out of the constant pastiche that flows around him he has picked “Hey Jude”. What can I say, the kid knows a hit.

This morning as I dropped him off at his preschool he suddenly decided to explain some of the details of his school life.

“Mr. Ben sometimes plays us songs on his ipod. He has the song Hey Jude but its the song without the singing and only the piano. I told him that no one could love the kind of Hey Jude without the singing!”

What is my son seeing here? He recognizes that an instrumental cover version of the massively famous song “Hey Jude” is a pale shadow, a retarded Doppelganger, a fading echo of something that is rightly  famous for its beauty and magic. Do you want to spend time with the freakishly robotic cover version of the music that defines your favorite bands? Of course not. You want the real thing. So does my son.

There are many ways to define fame and influence in music. I certainly have spent many hours listening to obscure yet influential music. This is one level of fame. It is the level of notoriety that resides on the side of hipness and art. Many of the questions and emails I have received revolve around musicians wrestling with the worry about becoming some kind of robotic boy band nightmare in exchange for fame.  This is a false concern. For most of my readers the possibility that this is your route to the top is slim. Instead the majority of sacrifices and conflicts lie in the realm of understanding that the path to the top involves mastering the craft of showmanship.  PT Barnum, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, David Blaine, KeithRichard, The Grateful Dead are all the same from the viewpoint I am trying to teach. When you look at the list did you recognize every name? Why’s that? Simple they are all master showman.

When I signed the Figgs to Imago I set about creating an aura around them. I signed them to a big booking agency and I told the agent that I wanted to the band to do a tour that would go on, and on and on and hit every little town and every mom and pop venue.  The label, of course, loved this idea. The agent thought it was overkill.  I wanted to do it for a reason that none of the people involved except for the band and I understood.

When the tour was booked it ended up being 147 dates in a row with just a few breaks. The band were young enough and dumb enough to do it. When they finished they looked, acted and played like they were five years older.  This was a bonus. As they got ready for the next journey onto the road I printed up a shirt – on the front was a drawing of a van gripping the world in its arms and the words The Figgs, on the back was a list of 147 dates in small type and the words “The Giggs”. Towards the end of the list on the texas date for the club Goats Head Soup the date was listed as “Burnt Down!”. It just happened that the band pulled up to sound check to find the club on fire.

Why did I do this? I , of course, was after fame for the band. That was my job. I decided that I wanted them to be known as the hardest working band in rock. As the band prepped to go out on the Van’s Warped Tour I had the record company calling every human on their list and dropping the words “the hardest working band in America” in every conversation. I would answer their incoming calls with “The hardest working band in rock!”. Three months of this stupidity and everyone else was saying it too.

Remember that with your music no one has decided what to say about it. Often you have the opportunity to put some of the words in their mouth. Ask yourself “What would be the ideal thing to be famous for?”. You certainly could pick “the band with the biggest cocks!’ (as long as Zeppelin isn’t touring). You can pick to skip it. In that case you better be happy with whatever the press wants to tag you with. My two decades of experience with this kind of thing tells me that if you aren’t  crafting your band’s image then you will likely end up with nothing.

I recently read a review of the Figgs from a live gig. The writer was about twenty. He used the phrase the hardest working band in rock twice. The band hasn’t  used that in their press pack in years but it follows them nonetheless. I can think of worse tag lines……

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010