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Think For Yourself & Question Authority

This is an opinion piece.

I have found myself commenting (ranting?) on various posts on Music Think Tank a lot recently, normally versions of one theme, which can be summed up by a phrase borrowed from Timothy Leary, the psychedelic guru/grass, who nevertheless had a way with a catchphrase: ‘think for yourself and question authority’.

What bugs me are the posts that state or imply that there are routes to success available to any artist who follows certain rules.

Hardly any provide proof of any kind.

Strangely, the internet has birthed this new phenomenon, a raft of advisers, ‘gurus’, marketers, and bespoke PR companies who sell their services to artists, some of whom post on MTT in thinly disguised pieces, advertising themselves.

I have encountered, as long as I’ve been involved in music, going back to the late 70s, people who offer to take artists to stardom.  The worst hid behind production companies that signed artists to deals with very unfair splits and then just sat and waited in the hope that a label would pick the artist up and be forced to buy them out.

The new batch, at least, don’t sign artists to contracts that will haunt them for years.  But they do sell false promise, a lot of the time, based on a vague notion that the internet will provide.

When I check them out they seem to buzz around from music conference to music conference, sitting on advisory panels and generally being taken seriously.  The impression is of a kind of quango industry to which other sections of the music industry have devolved their advice duties.

While the gurus chat on about newly empowered musicians, the music industry continues on its merry way, with most artists signed to deals that are only a minor improvement on the 80s and 90s and sometimes, with the ‘360’ deals, more unfair.

It’s an accidental conspiracy.

Still, all the hopeful or spurious advice would be made much more acceptable to me, at least, if it was accompanied by the following information:

The traditional music business, where large amounts of money still shift about and new, huge players, like iTunes/Apple and Youtube provide ample evidence of an industry owned and controlled by big business… …is not dead.

But.  If you sign a record deal you DO NOT HAVE TO PAY BACK YOUR ADVANCES!  It’s not a bank loan, it’s an advance on royalties from sales and if you don’t sell a single download, if you leave the company, the debt stays attached to the material you assigned to the company, not to you.

Which means, if you are lucky enough to sign a deal for an advance of £80,000 and you end up selling 150 downloads because nobody likes you or you released a song during an alien invasion, whatever’s left of that 80 grand, you keep.  Maybe you bought an expensive guitar, or a recording studio, or a house. Either way – it belongs to you, not the people who paid for it.

And then, if you get dropped by the record company, you can go on and sign with another one.  Or do it yourself on Tunecore.  The company has no hold on any material you record outside of the contract period.  If they don’t drop you, they have to pay you more money (even more money, normally) in another advance,  for another album, which, again, you get to keep if you don’t sell enough records to pay it back out of your royalty percent.  But they keep the album.

Obviously, 100% of sales profit is better than 15% (which would be a generous-ish split on a major label deal), if you are selling tens or hundreds of thousands.  Equally obviously, a loan based on limited material rather than your house or your car or the love of mum and dad is a better deal if things don’t work out quite how you expected.

I’m not coming down for or against either side here, I’m just saying the situation should be honestly acknowledged.  If you are prolific but work in a genre with a limited audience you would probably be better off with a series of record deals than doing it yourself.

The benefits of signing to a decent sized label, publisher, management or production company are many and vast, as well as potentially fraught with difficulty.

Then again, working as a loner, start-up, even with a group of like-minded people, involves not just the extra time and effort beyond making music, but also laying your own money and possessions on the line.

Which is why I say, to the advisers, ‘gurus’, marketers etc  Please, put your money where your mouth is, show the options actually working, be honest about the potential of your ideas, provide proof and acknowledge the whole picture as it stands and not just how you wish it to be.

And, to the artists and musicians, don’t take it for granted that anyone knows what they’re talking about on this site (even me! …especially me) Check it out for yourselves.   If you’ve got time…

Thanks for your time.

Tim London is a producer and songwriter, working in pop and theatre.

Reader Comments (3)

Ummm... I agree with a lot of this. But most people that I know that have gotten significant advances it works that the band name is owned by the label for so many years/releases & the labels never technically refuse an album so you can't legally shop it or sell it elsewhere. That's why you sometimes see a record shelved for three years or a band's name changing when they seem on the cusp of breaking, the label abandoned them without technically dropping them.

I know some promo companies do a good job & you get what you pay for in general. For $200 you aren't getting a lot of expertise or promotion. In fact I think having your name associated with some of those places may be a negative promotion!

December 15 | Registered CommenterBrian John Mitchell

It would be an unusual deal for the label to own the name - normally only where a production company has set up the band. Of course, you can't release using the band/artist name outside of the label whilst the deal is in place, but for the deal to be in place they need to be paying an advance for each album and/or term.

So, yes, the label keeps the material and perhaps they won't release it (it's happened to me) but they do still pay you.

And if they don't want to pay you, it's a deal breaker and you're free to release elsewhere.

(This is all based on the premise that, if you are signing a deal with a sizable label or company you will get an informed lawyer/solicitor to advise and help negotiate before signing. Some labels will try to include grandparents and first-borns in the deal if they can...)

December 15 | Registered CommenterTim London

I think there is a pretty standard contract that some indies use probably taken out of a book somewhere that says first option for seven releases or seven years! Which a lot of folks are willing to sign. That's the contract that leads to band name changes. Because what they do is, you deliver a record & rather than technically refuse it, they'll say "can you polish it up a little?" & then if you take it elsewhere they'll sue. Which is dumb. Really to me if you are working with someone who you don't trust, you should work with someone else.

December 15 | Registered CommenterBrian John Mitchell

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