You're the Boss
A few thoughts about the business side of your career from rock guitar hero Steve Vai
There are tons of publications, books, and schools that can teach the music student all about the various elements that go into becoming an accomplished performer, composer, teacher, or even pop star. But there seems to be only a handful of publications that teach the aspiring musician how to navigate within the world of the music business. Typically, musicians and other artistic people have brains that work differently from those of executives and it is rare when the twain shall meet. While lawyers, managers, accountants, and executives are fascinated with numbers, musicians are fascinated with music.
There are many ways for the student to research the little black dots and mine the infamous words of wisdom from experienced professionals. In this article, I would like to give a little bit of insight into the importance of educating yourself on the business side of the art.
I believe that many musicians neglect this area of study because it seems either boring, beneath them, above them, unimportant, or intimidating. I'm a pretty good sight reader, and I can tell you that reading and writing music is much harder than understanding the music business itself. Below, I will outline a few things that you may want to keep in mind in the future. I encourage you to do more than skim the surface of the following issues. Educating yourself about the business of music can yield benefits, even point you in a new direction. Some musicians may actually discover that they are more interested in the business side than the musical. You'll know who you are, and there is nothing wrong with following your calling in life whether it's to become a rock star, a lounge singer, or an administrator for a music publishing company. It's always been my thought that truly driven musicians have no choice in their careers but to be what they are.
|Photo by Ross Pelton|
Music publishing is a pretty vast field that warrants serious investigation. When you create a piece of music you need to protect your intellectual property rights. Launching your own publishing company is one way to do this. It's not difficult and is a way for you to copyright your work forever. You will notice that one of the things that the people who are fascinated with numbers are really fascinated with is publishing. It's the best-kept secret in the business. In many cases, a musician's publishing can become his or her retirement fund. Frank Zappa once said to me, "Never give up your publishing. That may have been the best financial advice I've ever gotten.
If you write good music, wherever you turn, there will be a film or record company or some other party who wants a piece, if not all of your publishing. If you studied the infrastructure of publishing with the same energy that you memorized the modes you'd probably get it in very little time. There are various types of publishing, and it's too complex a field for me to cover in detail here, but there are some very concise books out there that can give you a complete overview of music publishing. One of them is Music Publishing: A Songwriter's Guide, Second Edition written by Randy Poe.
There are some who believe that there is justification for all the degrading lawyer jokes in the world, and I have personally had to deal with the American judicial system's most insipid side, but the legal field is like any other. Just as you see inspired musicians out there, you also find trend-mongering ne'er-do-wells wearing clown masks. You will find very inspired and fine lawyers out there who have insight into the business and a sense of fairness. Likewise, there are hacks out there who have no incentive to stop arguing over nonsense.
Although the average working musician may seldom need the advice of an attorney, there will inevitably be situations where sound legal advice is necessary. You will probably need a good attorney even before you hire a manager. In the established musician's career, almost everything is sent to an attorney for review because there are hundreds of points and issues that arise whenever you commit to a project of any type. Contracts can be extraordinarily complicated and while you should have a basic understanding of the legal language, I don't know any musicians who do their own legal work. Attorneys go to school for years to be able to read, write, and decipher all the aspects of a deal. If you go into something without knowing what all the fine print means, you could very easily be cutting off a foot, or even worse, your "G string.
Unfortunately, I can't suggest any good books that explain how to pick a good lawyer, but here are some things I would recommend that you do. Talk to at least three or four of a lawyer's other clients to get a reference. Ask for a free consultation and try to get a vibe. Make sure the lawyer explains things to you in understandable terms and with patience. The moment he or she gets frustrated with you, leave the room. The most important thing is to not be intimidated. That will distract you and jam your antenna. Some attorneys have a tendency to be bullish and forceful but they shouldn't be with clients. When you start getting those legal bills, you'll understand why you should be treated with respect.
Most of the things that apply to finding a lawyer apply to finding a manager. A good manager will help his or her client to find an agent, solicit tapes, field phone calls, present all options, be the liaison with lawyers, producers, musicians, record companies, etc. A savvy manager will help you to cultivate your talent and realize your goals and won't try to change you into what he or she thinks you should be. Honesty and integrity are essential prerequisites, and, unfortunately there are no books to guide you in this either. In the professional realm of the business most musicians are not taken seriously unless they have good representation. It's difficult to find managers who don't burden themselves with more artists than they can handle.
As far as a manager's compensation goes, there are books that outline the various deals that an artist can make with management. Sometimes it's 15 percent to 20 percent of the artist's gross or 15 to 20 percent of the net. I wouldn't consider committing to a higher amount than that. There are a few pitfalls to watch out for. First, be wary of managers who want their own lawyer to represent you. Second, never relinquish control of your finances if you can handle them. Rather than giving the manager or lawyer access to your accounts, have them invoice you. The same goes for a business manager if you hire one.
Ah yes, the elusive record deal, the Holy Grail of the music industry. This is what most struggling musicians think is the key to success and the oars to that little rowboat to heaven.
There are many kinds of deals and contracts you will encounter in your professional life: sideman deals, licensing deals, management contracts, record contracts, and so forth. The important thing is to research what constitutes a fair, contemporary deal. (I use the term "fair loosely.) It's easy to find an offer that is completely off base from what is the status quo in the industry. Here are some suggestions to help you judge whether you are getting a reasonable offer. Have a good attorney advise you as you review the terms. Seek out seasoned professional musicians who have gone through the process who will share their experience. Having a well-aware manager can also help. Finally, you should always corroborate the information you receive to be sure you're on target.
In addition, there is a tremendous book titled Kohn on Music Licensing by Al and Bob Kohn and also, Kohn on Music Licensing 2000 Supplement. These books outline various industry standard deals in areas ranging from licensing to publishing to film music licensing. It's written in legal language but if you can get through a few contracts and start to familiarize yourself with the language, you'll reap benefits. Otherwise, your "patient lawyer will gladly explain things to you for $300 an hour.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have been blessed with phenomenal industry professionals for legal, accounting, and managerial issues. This professional support has given the opportunities for me to make the music that rocks my soul.
Early in my musical career, I felt uneasy and even nervous around music business types (managers, lawyers, agents, record execs, etc.). These days they don't intimidate me at all. Such people are there to make things work for you, but remember that they are fascinated with numbers more than with notes. If you have the talent, never sell yourself short because you're afraid that you'll miss the opportunity to get signed. If you've got it and it's good, they will want it, and they will pay for it.
I would also highly recommend a book called This Business of Music by M. William Krasilovsky, Sidney Shemel, and John Gross. It's a brilliant source of information about the workings of the music industry and it is constantly being updated.
I would have enjoyed writing an article on being an expressive musical person or on the virtues of playing the guitarcomplete with cool whammy-bar techniques. But all too often, I see the most talented of musicians take a beating because they didn't invest a little time educating themselves on the fundamentals of the music business to protect their art and their assets. Make the effort to understand the business. And keep in mind that it's your careeryou're the boss.