Putting the “Business” in the “Music Business”

It is said that if you do not make mistakes, then you are not trying hard enough.

I’ve made many mistakes over the years. The up-side of it is that I got to learn from them. The down-side is that valuable time got lost, as well as money.

Today, I’ll take you through some of my bigger mistakes, and share what I’ve learned. Hopefully, my errors can help you save valuable time, or even money, and help you to get where you want to be faster.

While some of these scenarios will sound negative, because they are bad situations, the positive side of this is giving a heads-up to those young musicians who are setting out to make something of themselves in the music business.

There can be no positive without negative, hot without cold, inside without outside, or light without darkness. Attempting to separate them would be a fool’s game, but that’s another blog for another time.

2008 Casanova Jones Paladinos
Gig at Paladino’s, drumming for Casanova Jones [2008]
WHEN ARE YOU IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS?
Some might think that you’re not in the music business until you get signed by a major label. That’s really old thinking, but it’s also errant. The minute you achieve a level of proficiency on your instrument and set out to join or form a band with the goal of earning money, you are in the music business.

Yes, before you’ve booked one show and earned one dollar, you are in the music business.

AUDITIONING FOR THE BAND
Auditions are like job interviews. Sure, the band/boss wants to find out that you’re qualified. But at the same time, you want to know that you’re getting the pay, benefits, and other compensation package details in return.

With bands, it’s only pay.

Once the band knows what you can do, it is time to have a business discussion, so that you know what to expect in return for your efforts.

Is there rehearsal pay? Are room, board, and travel covered? Is there a stipend? Have this discussion, and be ready to say no if what they offer is not acceptable.

TALK ABOUT MONEY AND EXPECTATIONS UP-FRONT
Do not try to do this after you’ve participated in a bunch of rehearsals and have played a few gigs. By this point, it’s too late, because you’ve de-valued your services as a musician and band member by working for free.

Always discuss the business aspects BEFORE playing one note in a rehearsal or gig. Understand what they expect from you, and have them understand what you expect from them.

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Performing as a hired gun at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood [2009]
BAND MEMBER vs. HIRED GUN
The above applies to both band members and “hired guns.” A hired gun is not a band member, and they are usually paid a flat rate. So if the band sees a crazy amount of success, the band member still gets that flat rate. Renegotiation is recommended.

While a band member may be asked to share in expenses, the hired gun should not. So if you are a hired gun, and you are being asked to split the cost of a rehearsal space, recording studio time, or other expenses, then you are being ripped off.

Being a hired gun can pay off, if you work it right. When Pink Floyd was having issues and were dissolving before they were touring for “The Wall,” the camps were split between David Gilmour and Roger Waters.

Keyboardist Rick Wright showed little in the way of allegiance toward either side, and instead insisted that he get paid by whomever wanted him. He also demanded to be paid for The Wall tour. In doing this, he absolved himself of participation, should the tour make millions. However, he also absolved himself of incurring any of the expenses.

The tour ended up being very expensive, to the point that Rick Wright was the ONLY person to make money on the tour. He earned $700,000.

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Hired gun for comedian Fred Willard at Wilshire Ebell Theater [2009]
SET BOUNDARIES FOR PROFESSIONALISM
Being in a band is not like being in an office. There can be partying and good times. There can also be addiction and destruction. If you note behavior in rehearsals or touring that is unprofessional, make note of it and give consideration to moving on.

One band I was in had a 7:00pm rehearsal time. I got there at 6:00pm to get warmed up. Nobody showed up until almost 8:00pm. When everyone was there by 8:30pm, they decided that a beer run was in order before starting rehearsal, which ended up around 9:30pm.

This scenario is both unprofessional and unacceptable. It shows no respect toward anyone’s time. Even worse, it shows a disrespect toward the music. They’re not taking their own business seriously.

You’ll find that lots of people who want to be musicians engage in this behavior. If you want to be a musician because you don’t like working, then you will end up bagging groceries.

Treat it like a business.

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Drumming with Noodle Muffin at The Westwood Brewing Company [2002]
BEWARE OF LIES AND STICK TO THE PLAN
One band I was in briefly answered an ad that I had placed, saying they needed a drummer to fill in for a last-minute gig, or else they’d have to pay a $500 cancellation fee. I decided to step in and fill the spot for them. My offer was $300 for two rehearsals before the half-hour show.

My mistakes in this situation started when I allowed emotions to over-ride business. I liked their music, they seemed like good people, and they had a standing monthly gig listed on their Facebook page.

With all of this information, I re-negotiated with them, stating that I would not charge them for the rehearsals OR the gig, if I could be a band member and share in the money of these monthly gigs.

It would be a few months before they would finally admit that the standing monthly gigs were fake, and that they’d put it on their Facebook page in order to “look busy, and generate demand.”

Obviously, they lied to me by not telling me that these gigs were fake when I re-negotiated.

If I were smart, I would have first stuck to the original negotiation for that fill-in gig. Then, I would have not been friendly with them so quickly. Finally, I would have told them that I was interested in negotiating a rate for their standing monthly gigs.

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 On keyboard with Robin Baxter Band at Club 88 in Santa Monica [1987]
A WORD ABOUT FRIENDS, BEING FRIENDLY, AND BOUNDARIES
I have typically fallen into the trap, where a band or musician is friendly with me, I become friendly with them, and then I drop all boundaries and defenses.

This is a major flaw of mine that has caused me problems for my entire life. Only recently have I received the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Before the diagnosis, I really had no idea that I was even doing this.

Now that I know, I can be more conscious and aware of it, and implement boundaries with the rule that I must stick to them, no matter how nice someone else might be.

I got this information about myself too late in life While it speaks volumes to my failures with setting and maintaining boundaries, it is also a testament to just how many people will take advantage of you if you get friendly with them and drop boundaries.

Always keep boundaries up for your own protection. People who are honest and who care about you will respect those boundaries. If someone is offended or upset by it, then it is time to move on, no matter how much you like the band or the music.

WHEN A BAND SETS BOUNDARIES
Now that you’ve joined a band as a member, or have formed a band of your own, you’ve got a new set of boundaries to keep in mind when doing business.

For those who are hired guns, your boundaries remain the same. What I’m talking about her would not apply to you, since you are being paid to be there.

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Performing on fretless bass with Noodle Muffin at Universal Bar & Grill [2009]
WORKING FOR “EXPOSURE”
There are people out there who will try to get you to play their big party or event, with the promise of “exposure.” They’ll tell you how hundreds of people will see and hear you, and that it could potentially get you more business.

These are situations that you should always reject, without hesitation or question.

Best case scenario, you play a party in exchange for “exposure,” and a half dozen people think you’re great and want to hire you. They will probably talk to the person who got you to play for “exposure,” and ask them how much they paid you.

This will set the bar low for you in the future, and will make earning money nearly impossible.

Setting your price and then sticking to it adds value to what you do. Never de-value your own band.

2003 Whiplads.jpg
Drumming in WHIPLADS at The Riverbottom in Burbank [2003]
PAY-TO-PLAY
I have only experienced this in Los Angeles, but it could be happening in other cities. In a pay-to-play situation, the band pays the club up-front, and then they have to sell the tickets to first make their money back, and then profit.

At its worst, I once drummed for a band who paid a club on the Sunset Strip $700 so that they could play a 25-minute set.

If you are going to consider a venture such as this one, then you must be certain that you can get enough people to buy tickets to cover what you pay.

Generally speaking, I would recommend that bands avoid these situations.

2000 Secret.jpg
Performing with SECRET at The Gig West LA [2000]
DO NOT GIVE AWAY TICKETS FOR FREE
With one pay-to-play situation, the band was not doing a good job of selling the tickets. They decided to eat the money they spent and give away the tickets. The idea behind this was that they could get bodies in the door, impress club management, and more drinks would be purchased.

It did not work out this way. The club management saw how few people were there, panicked, yelled at the band leader, and had people on the sidewalk telling passers-by that a “free show” was in progress. It was embarrassing.

When you give away tickets, the person who receives the ticket has NO attachment to the ticket, the band, the show, or anything. There is no consequence for them if they throw it in the trash, or even decide last-minute that they’re not going.

But when a person pays ten bucks for a ticket, they’re more likely to show up.

Giving away tickets de-values your band.

I’m certain that you’re seeing a recurring theme here.

SAY “NO” TO PROMOTERS WHO ASK FOR FILL-INS
I had built up a relationship with a promoter in LA, with one of my bands. This promoter seemed like a really nice person who appreciated the professional efforts of others.

One night, the promoter called me in a panic, noting that a band that was scheduled to open for a headliner cancelled last-minute.

My flawed thinking behind this was that if I do this favor for them, then they will return the favor by booking us better gigs.

2008 Karma Live
Performing with Karma McCartney at The Good Hurt in Venice [2008]
As you can guess, it did not work out that way. Instead, the promoter viewed us as a reliable fill-in band. Ironically, the promoter would not book us for gigs because they wanted to keep us in their back-pocket as the reliable last-minute fill-in.

What you may not have guessed was that our relationship actually got rather ugly at the end. The promoter asked us to fill a last-minute spot on the weekend before Christmas, which was on a Monday.

The promoter told us the usual, that we did not have to have a head count. In other words, we did not have to promote, guarantee a crowd, or bring anyone.

Any musician who has ever played in Los Angeles knows that LA clubs become a ghost town from a week before Christmas, until the New Year. We took the gig merely out of fun in this case.

The promoter came to the venue, saw nobody there, and chewed us out for not getting people in the club. This was unreasonable, not only because the promoter told us that we did not need to bring people or promote, but also because NO BAND can get a crowd during this particular time of year. Everyone is out of town, doing other things.

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Drumming with The Average Joes at Hinano’s in Venice [2009]
Taking a fill-in gig is an act of… take a wild guess… de-valuing the band. As you set boundaries for your band with promoters, be ready to counter them. They will use emotional manipulation to try to get you to do what they want.

2005 Whiplads
Double gig with WHIPLADS and Falling Moon at The Gig Hollywood [2005]
They may even threaten you with the typical talk of, “you’ll never work in this town again.” In our case, bending to the will of the promoter ensured, at the very least, that we would never again work for that promoter.

It’s very counter-intuitive, which is why it is so important to lean on your boundaries. Things are not always as they appear.

Should a promoter as you to fill in for a last-minute slot, the best thing to do is to first apologize, and the tell them that you are already booked for another gig. Feel free to say that this gig is paying you, so you cannot cancel. This also shows them that you stick to your commitments.

While this is not honest, it is essential to protect your band by doing this. It is your business, and the alternative is to allow your business to be compromised. Being 100% honest at all times will destroy all of your hard work.

 

Approach this in a way where you are protecting your business, while not actively harming anyone else. You are not harming a promoter by not taking their spot and declaring that you are busy.

The cancellation by the other band is THEIR problem, and not yours.

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Playing fretless bass with Black Hole Bindhi at Good Hurt in Venice [2009]
OWE NO FAVORS AND ACCEPT NO PERSONAL GIFTS
This tip is very important, because you could end up in a bad situation. Best case, you could lose some gear or money. Worst case, you could lose your life.

FAVOR: LEAVING GEAR ELSEWHERE
I’ve made the mistake of wanting to leave drums where I might be rehearsing with a band, such as in the band leader’s garage, a lock-out, or jam room in their house.

There was one situation, where the bass player had a meth problem and I did not know it. When I got to the lock-out, all of the gear had been taken by him. He sold all of it, thousands of dollars worth of gear, at a pawn shop for $100 to get meth.

In another situation, I kept a great deal of gear in a garage owned by a “friend.” He one day changed the locks, threatened me, and refused to return it. That was a $5,000 mistake.

Suing him and getting it back would have made a point, but it also would have cost much more than replacing the gear with new upgrades. Knowing his violent behavior, not knowing the condition of the gear while it was in his charge, and wanting to steer clear of it all, I decided to not pursue it.

Hard lesson learned.

PERSONAL GIFTS ARE NOT WORTH IT
This is a lesson that I learned from someone else. It’s a scenario that is less likely to occur in California.

In my friend’s situation, he played a show where some serious gangsters were in attendance. One of the gangsters approached him, said he really liked his music, and put a $100 bill in his hand.

Had he put it in the tip jar anonymously, that would be acceptable. But this was personal.

He handed the bill back to the guy and told him it was not necessary. The guy proceeded to apply pressure to him. “Ah, c’mon! It’s just a hundred bucks. You’re worth it, right?”

This high-pressure sell would have probably worked on me, especially since I now understand how my Asperger’s contributes to my being easily manipulated.

In the past, I would say no to someone, and they’d start with the hard press. Eventually, I would say yes just to get them to stop pressing me about it. But this would later open the door to additional manipulation, as well as abuse.

He had to work hard to get the guy to take the money back. Eventually, the guy took it back. The gangster told him, “Smart man. You know how to deal with guys like us.”

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF HE HAD ACCEPTED THE PERSONAL GIFT?
Accepting gifts makes a person beholden to the person who gives them the gift. This is why gifts are illegal for politicians. It’s also why accepting gifts from vendors and business associates at work will cost someone their job.

Had he accepted the $100 personal gift from this gangster, he would have been beholden to the gangster. Their next conversation probably would have involved the gangster asking him for a small favor that could involve delivering a package.

If you end up on this road, you may very well end up in prison, if you are lucky. Worst case, you can end up dead by being involved with them.

Never, ever, ever accept a gift. Tips are fine, but no gifts. Keep your integrity and your life.

A BRIEF SUMMARY
By now, you’re probably noticing a few patterns and themes here. With regard to business, here is a summary of my points:

  1. Be professional.
  2. Discuss business before playing one note at a rehearsal or gig.
  3. Have clarity regarding your position [band member or hired gun], and be sure that their expectations and yours match up.
  4. Set boundaries and stick to them.
  5. Be aware of lies, drug and alcohol abuse, and other indicators that the situation is not professional.
  6. Express your band’s value by not working for free or giving away free tickets.
  7. Do not do favors for anyone outside of the band.
  8. Avoid adopting the problems of others, such as promoters.
  9. Avoid pay-to-play.
  10. Remain professional and keep up boundaries, even if band members are friendly.
  11. Do your best to owe no one any favors.
  12. Do not accept gifts.

If I had to sum it up to one line, it would be this:

Be professional, talk business, put yourself and/or your band first, and keep an eye on your money.

IN THE END
Making music for fun is one thing. I have situations where I do this, and I truly enjoy it. However, when you’re approaching it from a business standpoint, be aware that there are lots of people who may not be so professional.

Bands typically come and go. Situations do not always work out. Be prepared to leave a project if you have concerns. You can bet that they would ditch you in a heartbeat, if it suited them.

Be safe out there, and best of luck.

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DrumWild

Drummer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and blogger.

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