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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Working out a deal with your band………..


Reader Oliver was kind enough to post a comment with a question that covers a topic I have intended to cover for a few weeks now. That topic is how do you cut up money within a band? What’s the whole royalty payment thing mean for individual band members over the long haul?
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Read through Oliver’s question and I’ll be back at the end……By the way Oliver is well-informed, and has put some thought into how his actions will affect other’s lives and their desire to be in the band. This proves Oliver is not a sociopath. Good for you Oliver. This may prove a handicap when dealing with all the bona fide sociopaths in the music business but it’s likely he’ll be a more satisfied rock star……………..
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Oliver writes:

Sorry if I’ve missed this somewhere but in keeping with the non-democratic approach you described, whats the best way to go about song rights/royalties? How do I avoid this situation:

i) Write every note and syllable and take all the royalties but gradually lose my band (but buy one eventually) (Dylan-esque)

ii) Write every note and syllable, split the money with band members to keep the band, drive myself crazy giving away money to the non-writing band, potentially lose the band anyway (Dandy Warhols-esque?)

iii) Agree to play/record anything good that any member writes and allow the rights/royalties go to the contributing member, run the risk of losing direction/ internal power struggles/ control over band. (Stones-esque)

None of these options seem good to me, and although I’m not greedy I’d hate to see a disgruntled band member in 30 years cruising on a yacht he bought with my songs (fanciful I know). I assume there’s no right answer, but you’ve been there and there must be a slightly better option of the three. I feel I’ve got to get this right early.

Regards and many thanks for publishing knowledge you can’t buy.
Oliver.

None of these options seem good to me, and although I’m not greedy I’d hate to see a disgruntled band member in 30 years cruising on a yacht he bought with my songs (fanciful I know). I assume there’s no right answer, but you’ve been there and there must be a slightly better option of the three. I feel I’ve got to get this right early.

Regards and many thanks for publishing knowledge you can’t buy.
Oliver.

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You’re welcome Oliver. I appreciate my readers and I know that getting an informed opinion is valuable. That’s why I write this blog.

Oliver’s predicament is classic. He is the primary creative force in his band. This is common. Most musicians are not also great songwriters.  A typical band is made up of :

A drummer – a rock steady rhythm monster with a flair for knowing exactly when to step in and a flash. He is the backbone and holds the rest of the band in the pocket and is the timekeeper.

A Bassist – He builds the groove and either adds the drive or defines the song as a dance tune. He can add darkness or light, thunder or soul.

Guitarist – Endless, colors and flavors, rhythms, melodies, flashy solos and roar.

A Lead singer – this is the ego and the magnet and turns the writing into an experience.

Any and all of these people make up a band and make the magic that the world recognizes as rock. Any and all of the people could be primary writers. Any and all of these people make it work and without them the magic is lost. All you need to do is think of two or three great bands and it’s easy to point out an instance where the loss of a minor member seemed to change a band’s spirit and as a result the band’s golden years were over.  Making music is a touchy thing, little  changes often have big results for the better or worse.

Since this is the case how does a band split up the money?  In a way this question misstates the reality of the way money is usually dealt with within a band.  The vast majority of bands are controlled internally by one or perhaps two creative geniuses.  This is the person that writes the material and provides the vision that makes the band unique. This person has more power than the other members so saying how does a band split up its money is dishonest.  The real question is how does the person that controls the band allow the money to be split up? Or what is the best way for a band to work out a compromise that keeps everyone on board and gives credit and money to the person (s) that deserve it based upon contribution.

Another wrench that gets thrown into the possibility of an easy fair system is the fact that most of a band’s career is spent in poverty. The lifespan of bands after they get a deal or a hit, or build a base is, at the absolute extreme 10 years with 3 years being a much more likely scenario. As a result of this reality in most bands money is never discussed except perhaps as a fantasy until it is too late and there is a pie to split up without a system to do so.

I suggest quite strongly that if you are in a band, form a band or join a band that you force the band to have some kind of agreement on how money is cut up.

In the underground indy world, the world that I lived in for twenty years and helped create, there is little money to worry about as a band works out its career. Gigs can be for $50, or perhaps a $100 and recordings are simple affairs that are self financed.  So nothing to worry about right? No, there is still a little money being passed around and more importantly people will often PUT MONEY INTO THE BAND.  So you and your Mother’s Uncle’s Nephew pay for the band to record a record, who owns it? The answer is 50% you and 50% your brother. Or 50% you and your brother and 50% the band. What about the producer? I think you get the point.

When your band first starts out have a serious band meeting. Discuss the following topics and write down the results. It’s better to lose a nutty bassist during an argument before things get going then to have him walk out on tour when he doesn’t get all of the door which is what his warped mind had decided was fair. (this happened to me. He started with “Everyone knows I have the most talent…..)

1. Does the band keep a joint piggy bank? Who keeps it? In what form? (cash or an actual bank account)

2.What is done with gig money? Most bands use this to build up the piggy bank.

3. If you pay for a recording what is the split on the ownership of the recording? On this one I will suggest that you work out something where the person that pays gets their cash back first, then the band owns the recording with the person that paid getting an extra share for risking their money. This is a common arrangement.

4. Is one person the leader and or main writer? If this is the case that person MUST GET SOME CONTROL over the use of their songs, and get the publishing money. I will explain this later in the blog. Let me just say that songs make money and bands make money and the songwriter is gonna end up with the song money no matter what you may want. If this pisses you off then write a great song about it, turn it into a hit and keep all the money to prove how unfair that system is….

Have a meeting. Write this stuff down. Then rewrite it in the form WE the members of Dog Dandruff being Joe, Schmoe, Larry Schmoe, Curly Schmoe and Gonzo Garbigian do hereby agree  to the following……then put all the crap you agreed to and sign it. Make four copies sign them all and Larry, Curly and Joe get a copy. Gonzo’s mom gets a copy since he can’t read.  This is a binding contract. It’s not a very good contract and it’s not a contract written up by a lawyer but in court the judge will hold his nose and respect it. Make sure it covers what to do with gig money, royalty money and songwriting money.

Now if it comes down to a fight about money and this goes to court this contract and your two-bit agreement will run smack into the LAW. There are laws about songwriting royalties. (see one of my blogs for an explanation) There are laws about contracts and working for hire and working for a cut. There are sleazy lawyers. There are sleazy bass players with sleazy lawyer cousins.  What does all this mean? As soon as you have some success and/or a manager redo all of this with a lawyer doing the consulting.  If you do end up using a lawyer YOU TELL HIM WHAT TO DO!!! He doesn’t tell you. He works for you. He will advise you and you’d be an idiot to pay him and not listen but in the end if the band wants to leave all of the money to the Museum of Idi Amin then that’s tough luck for the lawyer.

Now for some practical advise. Perhaps this will help our Reader Oliver. The vast majority of bands, and by that I mean a band formed by unknown musicians in an attempt to make it big, split their gig money evenly.  Since recordings are becoming less and less valuable as money-making endeavours this may turn out to be the lion’s share of the money.  So split the money evenly after the band covers gig expenses. The better you do the more the gig expenses cover. Once the band starts to play regularly and your fee starts to get healthier it’s wise to start a system of per diems. (that’s Latin for Per Day) What does that mean? Well, let’s say your band is getting paid $400 per gig. You are doing 4 to 7 gigs per month. The gigs are all within a day or two drive from your home base. The band will be covering a hotel room where you can all fight over who gets the single bed and which three fools have to sleep together in the King size. The gas for the van will be covered as will tolls and strings and drum sticks etc. What won’t be covered is food, drinks etc.  (of course, you will read one of my future blogs about how to get a promoter to feed you and get you drunk. But that’s only one meal a day) So in this situation you make a joint decision to give each band member a $20 per diem each day you are on the road. If you have crew it applies to them as well. (even the T shirt girl) Why would you do that? It’s simple. If  you try to have the band pay for dinner, and drugs, and alcohol you will soon be really pissed at the one guy in the band that eats steaks, smokes high-class bud and get’s loaded every day. Every band has one. Well, maybe Fugazi didn’t…well come to think of it I think they just SAID that everyone was straight…

If you go with a system where everyone gets a little cash every day then if they eat too much or drink or whatever most of it comes out of their own pocket. This is fair. You will be surprised how many days you can go on twenty dollars a day if your bed is paid for and the promoter gives you food and drink once a day.  sometimes it’s $5, sometimes $10, sometimes $50, I’ve never seen it go over a $100 unless it was a cheap excuse for the band to subsidize the members drug habits. (the breeders, The stones, Etc.)

When Miracle Legion toured Europe in 88? (I can’t remember which of the dozen tours it was) I sent a new member of the road crew out with them. His name was Tommy, he was from Philly, someone’s cousin’s friend, tough, strong, compact, didn’t say much. The kind of crew i prefered. If he had been Scottish I would have had him cloned. Hey you can clone a dog, why not a great roadie?

Well Tommy was new to the road so I gave him the standard lecture and then told him he would receive $24 each day. I forget why we picked that number but that was the per diem. He looked at me like and owl in the headlights. I asked him what was wrong. He said “That’s a lot of money.” The other crew members laughed.  LAter I noticed him loading a ten pound sack of rice into his backpack with a camp stove and pot. I told him he had to dump the rice. He looked hurt so I told him we would buy him ten pounds of rice in London since the issue was bringing grain across the English border (no fruits or grains)

The tour went out for twelve weeks.  When I met them all for the wrap up at tours end I asked the tour manager how Tommy had done. “Too fuckin’ good!” was the reply. It seems that Tommy lived on boiled rice and whatever he could scrounge. He didn’t smoke or drink. He got high once a week on the band’s day off.  Since the band demanded a full meal each night at the gig he was all set for food. So he hadn’t spent much money. To top it off he had lent all the other crew money when they ran out and charged them 5% interest (he ok’d this with me. How the hell could you say no to that?) He came back with everyone owing him money and he still had $1780 of the 2100 in per diems. Smart Kid. They all ended up hating him because he made them look bad. They tried to keep him off of the next tour so I made him crew boss with a different band.

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So you split up the gig money evenly. You give out per diems based upon what makes sense.  Now we come to publishing and recording which was the central issue with Oliver’s questions.

I’ve seen numerous solutions and they all have strengths and weaknesses. I’ll start with recording.

The most common solution is for the band to split the royalties from and recordings evenly. This split only pertains to records that you actually play on. If you leave the band you keep the royalty payments on albums you played on and forfeit all future royalty earnings on future albums. You have no rights to the band’s name. That remains with the band that continues on. This is important. Ask the prog rock band Yes. They had a PRODUCER take the band’s name away from them. That sucks huh?

Now we come to the complex one, songwriting and the use of songs. This is often where the big money comes in. This money is largely outside the grasp of the record company. It has the law backing it up. Radio pays it. TV pays it. Concert Halls pay it.

When a songwriter writes a song it is, by law and common sense, his property. He cannot stop someone from recording it including his own band. They do, however, have to pay him for it and the payments are set by law. (I strongly suggest that you read my blog about royalties.)

This brings us to Reader Oliver’s questions. In essence since he is the writer and guiding light he is wondering what is fair when it comes to splitting up money from his song’s publishing.  Should he give his band members some of this money so that if he becomes wealthy they will too, at least in some smaller way. There are arguments on both sides.

Now keep in mind that this does not have anything to do with songs that the whole band writes of songs that other members write.  In that case everyone will share or the individual writer will get the money. But what about a band where one member is the writing machine?

So let’s now imagine Oliver goes to see his Big NY Entertainment LAwyer Harvey Jacobowitzhofffriederstein. Yup he sounds like he’s a stereotypical NY jewish lawyer.  Don’t worry I will also send Oliver to other stereotypical characters of other races and religions in future blogs spreading his fictional life around amongst all of America’s stereotypes! whoopee! Sorry I got carried away.

Harvey is smart, he knows the business and he has decades of experience. He says

“Kid what a you meshugenah?  You’re talkin’ about giving away your money? Don’t you think the law is fair?”

He goes on to explain to Oliver that careful consideration had gone into the law and songwriters get exactly what they deserve.  He, of course, is a lawyer and lawyers are paid to represent your interests alone. They also seem to think that the law is always fair. If they changed the law today, he would tell you it was just as fair tomorrow.  In some ways the lawyer is right. Why would Oliver give away his money?

Oliver on the other hand realizes that if he has a hit song his royalty money will pour in. The band will not see any of this cash. Yes, the record will sell but the band will be in debt to the record company for big money. All of the sales of the record will go to paying off the band’s debt and the individual members will see little of it. This brings about a situation where one member is rich and the balance of the band gets nothing.

So now Oliver goes to see his manager, Clive Bakersfield -Coopersmith, a sweating, overweight Englishman with bad teeth. The manager listens to his problem while answering phone calls and returning emails.  He says

“Oliver, baby, you’ve got to keep the boys happy. You should split up your songs and give everyone a share. You’ll get the most of course. I’ll make a call and get you a publishing deal so everyone has some money by next week. That should keep everyone happy.”

He goes on to explain that Oliver will write many hits and will be rich beyond his wildest dreams. He shouldn’t begrudge his band mates a piece of the pie. In many ways the manager is correct as well. What to do?

Now oliver goes to see me, the retired Indy manager that has seen bands implode for ridiculous reasons and for good reasons.

And I say “Oliver, thanks for reading my blog. Here’s some advice from someone who has no dog in the fight, me. Your instincts are good. You should make some provision for the guys that play in your band. It is, after all, your band and your songs. Lots of the people who you will play with will forget that or never learn that fact fully. This members will become problems and you cannot be tied to them forever.  So this is the practical solution that I would suggest.

1. Start your own publishing company Artful Dodger Music.  This company will publish EVERY SONG YOU WRITE.  This company can collect your radio, tv and movie royalties directly without any other middleman. Choose one of the performance rights societies, either BMI or ASCAP and join as both a writer and as a publishing company.  Of course at any time this company can choose to sublicense some or all of the songs to a large established publishing company in return for a cash advance and a commitment to land soundtracks, commercials and tv spots.

2. Offer the band members a publishing contract. It would work like this. They must publish all of their songs through your company. At any point they can opt out of this requirement in which case they lose all FUTURE payments on FUTURE work. They will still retain any income or rights earned up to that point.

3. As the second part of this deal they will receive part of the publishing company’s income. It will work something like this.If they write a song and publish it with Artful Dodger Music they, of course receive all of the writer’s shares and also a share based upon the main writer’s deal (oliver’s cut) This makes it so they cut the same cut for their songs that you get for your songs.

4. The longer that they stay in the band the more interest and ownership they will gain in the publishing company.  Each year will add a set percentage until they reach a maximum cut. They will never lose this, the company will pay them royalties in perpetuity (forever or until Ronald McDonald is elected president whichever comes first) The percentage of these cuts is open to discussion  although I would suggest that  you enter into the discussion with two numbers in your head. An ideal deal for you and a compromise that you’ll except in order to do the deal. Remember ONLY WEAK PEOPLE DON’T KNOW WHEN TO COMPROMISE. I might suggest that you shoot for 50% of the publishing company and settle for 40%. This would leave 50-60 percent for them to split up.  If they stay in the band 4 years they get their full cut  of the band’s piece of the publishing company.  Each year they are in the band they receive 25% of the total amount they might get if they make it four years. As the band builds up their cuts the unassigned money goes to you.

5. If they leave they retain payments on everything published up to the day they leave.  They never lose this percentage. Any new member starts out at the bottom and has to accrue his cut as he goes, once again he maxes out at four years.

So what would this mean in the real world. OK let’s say that your write a hit “Beat’s the Dickens out a me”. It is published by Artful Dodger and released on your band’s major label record.  The record label pays mechanical royalties, radio plays it and sends in royalties and it appears in a bad kids sitcom where Miley Cyrus goes to 19th century london. For each $100 the song generates this is how it splits up.

1st year    $50 to oliver directly as the writer

$2.50 to each of the four band members that own 1/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of  50%

The balance of the $50, $40 goes to oliver so he earns $90 in the first year.

2nd year  $50 to oliver directly as a writer

$5 to each of the band members that own 2/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

the balance of the $50, $30 goes to oliver so he earns $80 in the second year

3rd year

$50 to oliver directly as a writer

$7.50 to each of the band members that own 3/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

the balance of the $50, $20 goes to oliver so he earns $70 in the second year

4th year The band members reach full shares

$50 to oliver directly as a writer

$10 to each of the band members that own 2/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

the balance of the $50, $10 goes to oliver so he earns $70 in the second year

If they bitch about such a small cut explain to them that they are free to write their own hit records at any point and publish where ever they like. Also tell them that you do not have to give them anything and this is most commonly what is done.

What I like about a deal structured in this way is that it provides some incentive to stay in the band, do as they are told and not bitch too much. It also recognizes that they are helping your career in a substantive way.  This earns them money for good. And finally if you become stinking rich they become really rich. Most people can live with that.  Since a hit record in today’s market could generate about 1,000,000 in publishing in a year you can see how it would be a fair deal.

The band will secretly pray that you write lots of hits and hopefully help you do that by giving you the solid backing you need………with a deal like this you are on your way to succeed at rock…………………………..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

The Only Bands that Matter…………..


I was given my first album at age 5, a disc by the band The Four Seasons. They were a cheesy vocal pop band that competed with the Beach Boys at the top of the charts in the early sixties. (you’ll notice that they don’t appear on the list later in this blog) From that moment I was hooked. I have been collecting and, more importantly, listening to music compulsively. I don’t watch TV. I don’t follow sports (I do enjoy baseball as a live spectator sport)  Now why, you may ask, do you give a damn about this little personal biography?

50,000,000 fans can't be wrong

50,000,000 fans can’t be wrong

Oops!  Forgot one or two

Oops! Forgot one or two

It’s simple really. For the past 48 years I have been listening to music, mainly rock, and learning what counts, what is related to whom and what is truly worth listening to. If you are in a band then listening to other bands is the most important thing you can do. It’s research. It’s what influences your thinking and what shapes your music.

If you are a young musician then most likely you are obsessed with one or two bands or at best obsessed with a particular rock movement like Nordic speed death metal with superhero themed concept albums. This is natural when you are young. You are developing your sense of aesthetics. (feel free to look that word up, I did) You may also be convinced that French guitar pop or Early 80’s straight edge hardcore or Electronica or Zydeco or Polka blues is the most important music in the universe. You are wrong.  It is very important to you and it has its place in the great pastiche of rock but it is not the only form of rock that is important.

The most common mistake bands make (other than not firing the drummer)is they are too focused on the one or two bands that they love. As a result they end up sounding just like the bands that they admire (or worship) and end up making music that is a pale imitation of another band.

I have listened to thousands of demos in the past thirty years. Really great bands are rare. Really bad bands are equally rare and often can be highly entertaining because they are so awesomely bad (The Shags for example) the vast majority are OK, mediocre, uneventful and they are always derivative.  This is the mistake that almost every band makes; they sound like another, successful band.  They fail to do anything new, to do anything risky, and to do anything that makes them truly special. Why listen to a band that sounds like the Black Keys? Why not just listen to the Black Keys?

No one bought our record and now we're the theme song to that 70's show

No one bought our record and now we’re the theme song to that 70’s show

That brings us to the subject of this blog and likely a few more to follow – What bands really count? What bands are great?  And I mean undeniably great. I intend to list a shitload of bands in an effort to outline a good basic knowledge of rock and roll. As you read through the list you will likely say to yourself, ‘hell, I know all these guys. There is nothing new here’. That may be so. I doubt it but assuming you do know all of these bands are there any on the list that you haven’t heard? If it’s on the list and you haven’t heard it then you should check it out then wonder ‘what other cool bands are out there?’.

I am also posting this list to spur people to comment. Please suggest additions to the list. Feel free to criticize my choices and to justify your suggestions. I know that I have ignored large sections of rock history. This is a result of putting together a quick list. Feel free to post bands the comments section.

I will be posting some lists from other people soon. I am certain that the following lists will highlight some of the holes in my first list.

Finally I’ll close with a rock anecdote. When Columbia records acquired The Clash for the American reissue of the first Clash record and for all the follow up records someone at the label’s PR department came up with the slogan “The Only Band that Matters!” In one of those truly rare moments in history the record label had it right. In many ways The Clash were the most important Punk band and Punk was the most important change to come along in a decade.  Over the intervening years it became apparent that The Clash summed up and perfected all of the elements that made Punk important.  You may disagree with this opinion or you may agree.  If you never had bothered to listen to the Clash’s five main albums could you really claim to have an understanding of Punk and be certain that your Punk band is really something fresh and new, something great with a capital G?

This is Rock

This is Rock

[for the sake of brevity I have only included bands and artists from the first 4 decades of rock, that is to say 1950 to 1990]

Classification(s)  B-blues, J-Jazz, P-Punk, PR-Prog Rock, CR – Classic Rock, F-Jazz/Rock Fusion, H- Hardcore, I-Influential, S- Soul, A- Alternative Rock, N- New Wave, O – Folk, SY-Psychedelic Rock, C-Country, Reggae –R, Metal – M, Glam Rock -G


The only bands that matter Part 1

The Clash – P, The Sex Pistols – P, The Buzzcocks – P, The Damned – P, The Germs -H, The Dead Kennedys – H, Mission of Burma – A, The Modern Lovers – I & A, Velvet Underground –I & A, The Beatles – CR, John Lennon – CR, Paul McCartney -CR, George Harrison – CR,  Big Star I &  CR & S, The Small Faces -CR, The Faces -CR, David Bowie -G, Robert Johnson – B, The Kinks CR, Jimi Hendrix –CR, Creedence Clearwater Revival –CR, Velvet Underground-I, The Soft Boys- I, The Pogues – P, The Band – CR, XTC- N, Nick Drake – O, Tim Buckley – O, Fairport Convention – O, Sandy Denny –O, Richard Thompson –O, Traffic –CR, The Byrds –CR, The Ramones –P, The New York Dolls – I, Yes – PR, King Crimson – PR, Frank Zappa –PR, Captain Beefheart  – I, The Talking Heads – N The Creation – SY, Love-SY,  Scott Walker –SY, The Pixies –I & A, Genesis –PR,  Leon Russell -CR, Cream –CR, Derek and The Dominoes – CR, Hank Williams –C, Johnny Cash – C, The Dictators – P Tommy Roe –CR, Jimmy Webb –CR, Joni Mitchell –CR, Janis Joplin CR-, Lou Reed –I, Jethro Tull –CR, Echo and the Bunnymen –N, Bebop Deluxe – N, War – S, Sam and Dave –S, Otis Redding – S,  James Brown –S, Gang of Four –N, The Smiths –N, Curtis Mayfield – S, Booker T and MGs – S, Ray Charles –S, Blind Lemon Jefferson – B, Bob Marley and the Wailers –R, Peter Tosh – R, Jimmy Cliff –R ,  Bob Dylan –CR, Led Zeppelin –CR & B,  Van Morrison – CR & S, Temptations –S, Ike and Tina Turner –S, Peter Gabriel –N, The Who –CR,  The Rolling Stones – CR, The Dead Boys – P, REM – A, Flamin’ Groovies – I, Thelonius Monk – J, John Coltrane – J, Charlie Parker –J. Count Basie – J, Chet Baker – J, Santana –CR, The Feelies – A, John Cale – I & A,  The Replacements – I & A, Deep Purple – I & CR, Little Feat – CR, Grateful Dead –CR, Metallica – M, T Rex – G, U2 – N, Elvis PResley – CR, Buddy Holly – CR, Beach Boys – CR

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

The Ramones on 40 gram audiophile vinyl………………….


I am going to veer off task and give little or no advice on practical matters, that is to say, I will rant about music and listening to music rather than saying something dreadfully clever about landing a gig or firing your bass player. (Go ahead and fire him… all bands must come to an end)

The interwebthingy that offers evil bastards like me the opportunity to warp young minds also aids the giant zombie musical death machine daily opportunities to track your movements and attempt to pick your pocket. At the mega labels they are just figuring this out.  If they truly understood the power of it they would have killed off rock and emptied every chicken out of every pot in the western world. It is a great stroke of luck that the Major Labels  have largely been staffed, in recent years, by complete imbeciles. Despite this handicap the labels are starting to spread their vampire wings across the cyber sky and circle around your carcass with other vultures like Google or Microsoft or The Council on Foreign Relations.

Lately, as I have been drifting along from webpage to webpage I noticed that Rhino Classics label has been following my every move. I’ll admit that I have actually visited their website. And yes, when I glanced at their page they stuck a homing tracker suppository in my ass and have been bugging me ever since. This kind of action falls under the principle of “If I can do it to you I will do it to you”.  The utter retards in the label marketing departments, drunk on their own power, had the same brain flash that all of the other megafuckulists have had in the past ten years – that is to say – they decided that the web was there to allow them to pick your brain and your pocket. It will never occur to them that we, the music listening public, do not see it this way. It will never enter their rodent brains that this is somehow immoral, in poor taste and extremely bad manners.

Now for an obligatory disclaimer. Rhino Classics is Warners Music, ie WMG.  The reason I happened to go to their leachlike website was to find their damn phone number so I could call them up and scream at them. It wasn’t actual screaming it was hyper polite since I have manners. I called to tell them I was suing them for failure to pay royalties for two years and for sending me fairy tales as royalty statements. That, in the music biz, is considered screaming. So there you have it, I am suing these gentlemen. In fact, since they, by being complete turds, forced me into a situation where I had no other choice, I am going to sue them for lots of core issues that matter to all artists as well as to me.

So back to the “If I can do it to you, I will do it to you” school of business practices. This attitude has nothing to do with ethics. For example I can try to sell you an ice cream cone on the street. If you refuse I can then beat your beloved dog with a shovel to influence your actions. As another example that is, perhaps, closer to the case in point – if I sold toilet paper I could place a camera in your bathroom to study your personal hygiene. I then could sell this valuable info to all interested parties.  Just because you can do something as part of doing business doesn’t mean it is right.

For the past few weeks the ads that have followed me have pitched The Ramones on heavy vinyl – a dream come true for audiophile collectors. They are trying to be oh, so clever. They know that you can just download the music. Since it will be a digital copy it will as good as the next downloaders copy. They also know that on some levels digital audio is just not as good as analog (ya know vinyl..) copies.  So when they pooled their collective brilliance together they came up with a plan (pronounced scheme) to sell you these rare jewels at these exorbitant prices.  They are desperate to sell you anything since they are all going broke fast. Soon, if things continue on the current path, they will be in such trouble that they will lose control of what’s playing out of your radio and which band you will hear about being the next big thing.  Shortly thereafter they may be forced to get real jobs. This sucks for them since they have heard rumors that there are no real jobs.

This brings me to the Ramones. The Ramones were great. They were one of the creators of punk. They rocked. I once saw them do 31 songs in a 65 minute set. I recommend that you acquire every Ramones record, even the one produced by Phil Spector the brilliant homicidal producer.  Do not buy them from WMG on 40 gram vinyl. It’s the fucking Ramones for god’s sake. Buy their records at thrift stores, garage sales and out of luck friends that need to raise cash for dope. This is the only way to buy Ramones records. You don’t own a forty thousand dollar stereo do you? Why, in God’s name would you want a slab of vinyl that costs twelve times the cost of a cheeseburger?

As a sidebar here I will say that I have met a few rich audiophiles. Ya know the type. Perfect apartment, expensive car, fancy pants yobs that have the absolute peak of audio perfection to impress their lady friends.  They invariably have eight audiophile records hermetically sealed in some kind of astronaut album sleeves. These recordings were carefully chosen for their recording clarity and the recommendation of some writer that also owns a sound system with its own mortgage. Oddly, one of the titles is always Dark Side of the Moon even though the guy has never smoked a joint. The only other guys that own audio systems that involve CIA Black Program technology are record industry executives and they never listen to music.  Well they might listen to the 40 gram vinyl version of Rocket to Russia and wonder in quiet terror whether you will buy it……………….

©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