In preparation for my second Midem, I’ve started looking at all kinds of music business material, old and new. This is how I stumbled in an old CD Baby DIY podcast, featuring Alicia Rose, booker of the Daug Fir Lounge, one of Portland’s main music venues.
During the interview, Alicia says:
“If you bust ass, you make money. I’m not just gonna hand it to you for the sake of handing it to you. This is business. They [the bands] gotta… you gotta get back to me. If you want us to survive, as a venue, you gotta help us prosper.”
Ever since the last year, I’ve heard and read similar comments, almost every time I approached some professional manager, agent, or publisher. One of the managers I spoke with during Midem 2011 famously told me: “Come back when you’ve managed to make at least 5000 euros per month. Then we’ll talk.”
Since today, I had the obviously misguided notion that the business of music was about connecting different professionals, with different skills, in a way in which everyone profits.
“I can play guitar, but I can’t really sell myself. That guy can put together a tour, but can’t play a kazoo if he tried. That other guy knows all about music law. Let’s get all together and make a LOT of money!”
Perhaps I was naive. After all, for every club booker I am in contact with, I know 10 musicians that would kill to have a concert.1 Fair enough: there’s simply not enough money for these professionals/ venues to prosper unless a given act can “prove” that they’re already somewhat successful.
But if business is business, then we have to talk money and strategy and benefits.
Let’s say I manage to earn those 5000 euros, consistently, every month. I do that with my trio. We are completely independent. We paid out of our pocket to have our picture made by a professional photographer, we paid for our album and poster art, we paid for marketing coaching, and we “bust ass” every day to get them concerts and CD sales coming.
At the end of each month, we’re making slightly more than 1600 euros each. That’s not a bad monthly salary in most places in Europe, even if you have a “proper”, 9 to 5, cubicle, “this office is killing my soul” job.
Why exactly should I come and talk with a manager at this point? Why parting with a percentage of that money, when we’re doing so well already without the need of adding another person to the chemistry? After all, we’ve got 1600 in the pocket every month. And that’s without synching deals, without teaching, without any part time day job that we could have.
But the local/ regional/ national scene is so passé! We want to work less and concentrate on the music! And we also want to grow. Perhaps not “I have my private jet” grow, but, you know… end up on Mojo’s cover wouldn’t be that bad! Come on, why not shooting a bit higher?
Ok, time to go back to that manager I spoke with at last year’s Midem, right?
Why him? Because he has 30 years of experience? So what? This is a business, right? The trio is the business, for crying out loud!
How much money is currently making for the artists he’s managing? Ten thousand per month? A hundred thousand? Because you can be in business for 30 years and be Danny Rose. Are you ready to show me your bank account, or any proof that you can make 100.000 euros for my band every month? Heck, why 100.000? Why not 500.000? I’m a business, and 500 grand looks better than 100.
The blood of some of my readers might already be boiling. The hell with me! With that attitude, I’ll never work with anyone in this business!
Well, dear manager/ publisher/ booking agent, wait! The picture is not complete yet.
The band is making 5000 every month. We decide to call a kid just graduated from college and say: “Kid, we’re gonna try something. Here’s 200 euros per month for the next six months. We’re gonna pay you 50% of all the net income you produce for us on top of what we’re making. Here’s a laptop with skype. Here’s an email address for you. Now go and do your best.”
Do you think the kid, with zero years of experience in the music business, but with loads of enthusiasm and, hopefully, enough know-how and enough friends and connections, will not give us 100%?
His salary depends on how much business he gets us. If he makes it, he will be the cool guy that got out with a marketing degree and started working in the sweet, cool, “there no business like” show business!!! And he is not starting from zero: he’s managing a business that is producing, right now, a 5000 euro net profit per month in a field in which you’re lucky if you make half of that, including the expenses.
Yeah, sure, the kid is going to make mistakes. Gotta be patient, he’s got to learn. But the trio is only risking 200 euros per month on him. That’s less than 100 each.
He will probably be internet native. He knows the difference between a facebook page and a profile. He probably hangs out with someone who can create a website that would make the Beatles’ look “just fine”. He has friends and connections in the target market that would make any promoter/ manager wet: 18-25.
His people are going to grow with the band. His people are gonna check us out, and rave about us, because their bro is managing us and they can’t believe it! In our after-gig party, we’ll be hanging with young people that are obsessed by music and ready to support their friend, not with some 50 year olds that we met at a convention once, who allegedly know everything about a business that is losing ground, economically, every day.2
In addition, this kid is working for us. Not the other way around.
If I go to an established manager, I have to prove myself. I have to “bust ass”. If I don’t make it bigger, I’m a failure: the manager’s been there for 30 years, he must know his stuff… so it’s me, my trio, my music. Me.
On the other hand, If I hire a kid to do the job… aaah, it’s a different game. I can be at home, chilling, rehearsing new material, or thinking of our next big project. He has to “bust ass”. If he doesn’t, I’ll still be making 5000 with my band. If he doesn’t, he will feel like a failure, not me.3
The moral of the story
The moral of the story is that you get treated exactly like you treat the people that approach you.
The sad story of the decadence of record label should teach everyone a lesson. If we are all friends, if we all work together, if we genuinely care about each other, then the music business will rejuvenate and we’ll all prosper.
If we start playing the “I’m a business” game and think that each of us is so unique and special, then we lose. And you’re gonna lose before me, because I can teach guitar. I am going down much slower than you, because I don’t need a professional music structure to teach. People will still want to play regardless of how the labels are doing, or how the synching market is holding up, or what’s the new standard for distributing royalties to musical creators.
You could say that there are hundreds of musician for each other professional figure. True. But what makes you think that someone is gonna come crawling to you when there’s so many young people unemployed out there? Your years of experience? Well, I have 16 myself and I think playing this game is childish, fruitless and stupid.
The good news for all you musicians reading this is that there are great people out there. Not every professional will treat you like a source of easy money.
There are people that really do listen to what you say and that really do think twice before saying: “No, sorry, I can’t do anything for you.” The funny thing is that, even if they do turn you away, you will remember these people, and keep the contact, because you appreciate the time and consideration they gave you. Who knows, one day they will be the ones knocking at your door, and their niceness will pay.
To her credit, if Alicia Rose’s venue really promotes the events as much as she says, and if the average email she gets is from musicians so full of themselves to think that their last CD will change the history of music, she does raise a number of fair points. In my experience, sadly, she is the uncommon exception.
You might also like:
- The ratio of manager/ musicians is I know too low to consider. That of publishers/ musicians is close to zero. [↩]
- Sorry, that’s what the news have said in the last 10 years. If you have “decades of experience”, what you are really saying is that you could be an integral part of that failure. [↩]
- I’ve made this example about marketing and managing, but this could easily be any other aspect of the music business from publishing to producing an album. [↩]