The Responsible Musician

Taking Care of Your Instrument, Your Business, and Yourself

April 29, 2020

Advising is one of my favorite things to do. I look forward to talking with young musicians about their academic progress, their professional goals, and their plans for the future. Two groups that I especially enjoy counseling are students in their final year of college and new alumni. They often feel pressured to choose a path and run with it, and, whether they feel ready to do so or not, they are being asked to grow up fast. They are bombarded with all sorts of advice about what it means to be a “responsible adult”: how to get a job, pay bills on time, and maintain a living space. But having an understanding of what it takes to be a “responsible musician” is just as important. 

After 30 years of advising musicians, I have come up with a three-part formula for what it means to be a responsible musician:

1. The responsible musician takes care of their instrument.

Whether it’s the violin or the voice, the responsible musician protects the integrity of their instrument. If that means using a heavy-duty case, wearing a scarf when it’s cold out, or buying instrument insurance, it’s important to take every precaution to protect the tools of your trade.

2. The responsible musician takes care of their business.

My expertise is in making sure that musicians protect their assets as well as their income. For example, I stress to every songwriter I meet that they should never leave a studio or a recording session without filling out a split sheet that outlines the owner of the song, the identity of the music publishers (if any), the names of the associated PROs (performing rights organizations), and the percentage each contributor owns of the song. Students and alumni should not be afraid to have candid conversations with their collaborators about who did what and how much each contribution is worth. Splits should be determined at the end of every session, and can be done on a paper split sheet template or even a smartphone app.

The split sheet comes in handy when songwriters register their songs with their PRO (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc.) to collect public performance royalties, and when registering the copyright. Although copyright protection is automatic upon fixation of the work in a tangible medium, it’s important to register your ownership with the Library of Congress. Whether you are the owner of the composition (the musical work), the owner of the master (the sound recording) or both, you should take care of your paperwork soon after the work is created and no later than three months after the work is published. This way, each work is guaranteed the maximum number of benefits and protections under the law.

3. The responsible musician takes care of themselves.

The music business is a fast-paced industry. The stress and pressure of recording, performing, networking, and making a living often overshadow the joy of being on stage or sharing experiences with fans. That’s why it is so important to take care of yourself physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. The responsible musician has support that they can draw upon when times get rough. Whether it’s a fellow musician, family member, friend, or therapist, it’s important to have someone to talk to. Responsible musicians also develop tools, habits, and other coping mechanisms to help them deal with stress, and they have professional resources on standby to work through issues such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Although taking care of your instrument and handling your business will keep you employed and help pay your bills, taking care of yourself will keep you strong, healthy, and happy. Being a responsible musician is a small part of being a responsible adult, but it’s the part that allows you to have the kind of career that makes being an adult all the more enjoyable. 

Tonya Butler J.D., LL.M., is the assistant chair of the Music Business/Management Department. She will take over as chair of the department in August. 

This article appeared in the spring 2020 issue of our alumni magazine, Berklee Today.

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