Posts Tagged ‘Music Business

10
Jan
14

What’s Your Motivation?

bandwback1When I was a kid and I decided that I wanted to have a go at becoming a creative music professional, I knew I needed a plan and a vision of what success would look like so that I could attempt to make my way to it.  This began by answering a simple question: “what’s my motivation?” An even simpler way of putting it would be, “why?” Why am I pursuing this and what specifically do I need to do to satisfy those desires?  My answer was about as pure and innocent as this often unseemly business can permit- I love making music.  I love working in multiple facets of the music production process.  If I could find a way to make my living and career doing this, I would consider myself a success. Whatever additional money, accolades and benefits would be bestowed upon me, I would consider a bonus.  I reached my goal only a few years after setting it and have maintained it ever since.  This self actualization does not mean I’m not still motivated to reach for higher heights in my field, but it does provide a foundation of content and happiness.

Anytime I begin working with a new client or colleague, I always try to find out what motivates them to do what they are doing.  I am in the customer service business and if I can determine what is at the root of an individual’s desires, hopes and dreams, I can better serve and assist that individual in reaching them and insure that he or she is satisfied with my work.  Oddly enough, I have found very few people share the motivation I have.  Quite often, their motivations are primal and based on misconceptions and even delusions about what it means to be in the music business.  As a result, even if and when one of these individuals does achieve a degree of success, they become disappointed when they realize that the things that come with it, are not what they thought they would be.  Below is a list of the four primary motivations I encounter in people who are trying to enter the music business.  Read and understand their drawbacks before using them as the driving force for your pursuits.

Fame

Many of us begin with the human need for attention. Few individuals I speak to tell me that they wanted to become a recording artist when they picked up a guitar or sat down at a piano and heard the magic emanating from the instrument they were playing.  Quite often though, the story I hear is of the first time that person saw a rapper or singer on television or on stage.  “Look how cool he is! Look at all the people focused on his every move! He is the center of attention.  I want to be the center of attention!” I listened to music and played around with instruments throughout my entire childhood, but not until I saw Run DMC did I want to be a rap artist.  As a white guy, it wasn’t until I saw the Beastie Boys that I realized I COULD be a rap artist, and later, seeing and meeting 3rd Bass, confirmed that I SHOULD be a rap artist.  All that being said, it would be the countless hours I would spend learning and developing my craft that would shift my motivation to the satisfaction that comes with creative expression.  I realized that the magic of beginning a day with a mere idea and then ending it with a recorded piece of art, transcends fame and attention.  While I wanted to share this work with the world, I quickly ceased being motivated by that desire.  Fame and attention became RESULTS of my work and not the reasons for doing it.  Unfortunately, many people don’t ever make this transition.

Me, performing live at Nation in Washington, DC, 2005.

Me, performing live at Nation in Washington, DC, 2005.

Fame is a drug that is highly addictive when one first gets a taste of it.  Those first few times one walks out on stage to a roaring crowd, those first people who are so happy to meet and have their picture taken with you, those first interviews when spectators are hanging on your every word; all have the addictive properties of nicotine.  Unfortunately, fame is also fleeting.  It rarely lasts too long at a high level.  Most B list celebrities became B list celebrities by falling off of the A list.  If one is motivated by fame and does not understand its shelf life, they are in for a fall.  I have worked with so many people who were once famous and even more who were “almost famous.”  These are artists who are older and are often trying desperately to get back to where they were. Perhaps they were signed to a major label, appeared on big records with famous artists, or even had a modestly successful project or two of their own.  Whatever the case may be, they often didn’t fully appreciate and enjoy their fifteen minutes while they had it; perhaps believing that they had “made it” and that fame was the new normal.  Fame kissed them on the cheek and then walked away, and although they publicly say they still do music because they love it, they secretly long for one more taste that more than likely, will never come.  Plenty of people achieve fame, but very few become iconic.  If you are doing music because you want to be famous, be aware that if you get it, it most likely won’t last long.  Enjoy the moments, but if this is WHY you did all that work, get a Zoloft prescription because a future bout with depression awaits you.

Women

It still amazes me how many aspiring artists can have their needs satisfied simply by putting them around some beautiful women.  I’ve seen artists forego payment for their services and even come out of their own pockets just to be in the company of women who believe they are a future star.  Perhaps these men didn’t get a fair helping of sexual experience in high school or college and now see their stint in music as an opportunity to mingle with a caliber of woman about whom they could previously only fantasize.  Once again however, women as a motivation, is dangerous and foolish.

groupies useAccess to beautiful women is a RESULT of success, not a reason for achieving it.  Many recording artists spend their fifteen minutes of fame tasting all the fruit the groupie tree has to offer.  But these women, as you may imagine, aren’t always cut from a cloth of high character.  So many artists have children with the wrong women, alimony payments to the wrong women, child support to the wrong women; all because they couldn’t resist the temptation when they were on top of the world.  Even worse, men with a weakness for women are easily identifiable and are easy to appease.  I have seen artists pimped out of all kinds of potential earnings simply because they were distracted by women who were either intentionally or unintentionally placed into their lives by those with whom they do business.  There is nothing wrong with partaking in some recreational sexual activity, but if you are getting into music for this, you will be disappointed.  Many successful artists are actually very lonely.  They live in a kind of bubble where everyone they meet knows who they are and must have their motives questioned.  You will still masturbate the way you did when you were living with your parents and the promise of a different woman every night is either an outright lie, or a giant let down.  If you want to fuck for a living, get into porn.

Money

This is one of my favorites because it may be the most uninformed. Whenever I meet an aspiring artist who wants to get rich making music, my first impulse is to ask him if he has been paying attention to the music industry over the past ten years.  Music business revenues have shrunk to a fraction of what they once were.  Only a minute percentage of people in music have ever actually gotten filthy rich doing it and that percentage is even smaller in today’s climate.  Even a modestly successful artist may only achieve really good money for a few years before he is on the backside of his career and the royalty checks fade away.  Hip Hop is all about the illusion of riches. It has the ability to snatch up kids from lower class backgrounds who often don’t really know what a LOT of money is.  If you came up on food stamps and a record label offers you a $150,000 advance (not to be confused with a budget,) you really might believe you struck it rich and sign your life away on the dotted line.  What the artist often doesn’t realize, is that $150,000 is what he is supposed to live on for the next year or more.   Once Uncle Sam takes his share and management and lawyers get reimbursed, the artist is left with the one year salary of a typical upper middle class American.  Yet, the aspiring rapper celebrates his new “fortune” with the purchase of a $35,000 necklace and several large charitable strip club contributions.  Six months down the line, he is living in an apartment with no furniture and no food in the refrigerator, hoping desperately his album is released on time, if at all.

Posing with a royalty check.

Posing with a royalty check.

Most of the people I know in the music business make the kind of money I make: a typical, modest living.  Every once in awhile, we may do something that is abnormally lucrative, but those of us who have been around know to take that extra money and put it into retirement, investments or other long term ventures.  If you are fortunate to get on a roll and skip up a few tax brackets, the notion must always be in the back of your mind that it can dry up just as quickly as it materialized.   Until you have put away enough money where you can comfortably say, “I can retire today and maintain my standard of living for the rest of my life,” you are going to have to work.  If you are motivated by dreams of getting rich, invent the next big web site or get into real estate.

The Myth of an Easy Living

baldheadslickWhich leads to the last and most popular delusional motivation of them all:  “I don’t want to work, I want to bang on the drum all day!” Making music for a living for as long as I have has been fantastic.  Over the years, many people have expressed to me their envy of my position.  Quite often though, their perception of my life is WAY off.  I wish I had a nickel for every artist who has said to me,” I can’t work a regular job,” or, “I just want to get to where you are at. You get paid to sit around and do music all day!” Reality check… I WORK MY ASS OFF! I have deadlines to meet, budgets to which I must adhere and clients to whom I must answer.  If you think this is because I mainly operate on the production and not the artist side… NEWS FLASH… You are going to work even harder as an artist! You want to “make it?” You are going to have to outwork everyone.  Do you have any idea how many people are trying to do this? You have to beat them and being more talented than they are doesn’t matter if you are not willing to work.  You are going to go into debt and rob Peter to pay Paul just to get an opportunity, and if you get it, the fun doesn’t stop! You will be staying up late for shows and then rising at the crack of dawn to do a morning radio show.  You will be in the studio recording drop scripts for three hours and doing press junkets where you must answer the EXACT SAME QUESTIONS over and over again without losing your mind.  You thought getting to this point was tough? Now you have to maintain it! Now you have to make it last as long as you can so that your label determines you were a worthy investment.  There are half a million guys behind you just WAITING for you to vacate your position so they can snatch it from you.  You got a hit record? Now you MUST make another one and soon…  Got a family? You aren’t going to see them that often.  Got interests outside of music? You better make some more hits buddy! You thought it was all after parties and getting your “money for nothing and your chicks for free?” You’re being sued because your bodyguard had to choke out an overzealous fan.  Your sophomore album’s numbers are nowhere near as good as your debut.  What now? Your label just dropped you.  The ride is over. It’s time to get on with the rest of your life. Did you save any money? Maybe you go back to school so you can get a “nine to five” where you realize that life is a lot less stressful working a “regular job.”

The bottom line? The above motivations are empty.  They will more than likely not be met by your musical endeavor.  Do yourself and the rest of us a favor.  Take a long look at yourself before you decide to venture into this fiasco.  If you aren’t doing this because you love making music, have something unique to say and a deep passion for expressing it, do something else with your life.  Otherwise, you are chasing the wrong dream.

25
Nov
13

Lamentations for the Music Business that Once Was

Music Sales DeclineThis is an essay I thought I would never write.  When I entered the music industry in the early 1990s, the disdain that I and many of my colleagues felt for the business we had chosen was almost immediate.  Having to talk and deal with people with enormous power to both help and hurt your career, but who did not share your priorities and appreciation for the art and culture to which you were dedicating your young life; was downright disheartening.  This was not just unique to me.  One only has to scan through the catalog of 90s hip hop to find countless records railing against the exploitative, cut throat and often petty tactics of music industry idiots. (I myself wrote at least a dozen.) So, in the early 2000s, when the industry’s stubborn refusal to adapt to the changes in how music was being consumed precipitated its nose dive of hubris, no one celebrated it more than me.  As an artist who had two unsuccessful attempts at major label projects and had been told by numerous executive types that my music was “too sophisticated”, I was happy to watch it fall and die. I had started my own independent label and recording studio facility and had been putting out my own records since 1996.  I built a good living, carved out a niche and had the personal assets and debts to prove it; and although the industry monster of which I was reluctantly a small part was crashing down all around me, I felt confident that whatever would replace it would be better.  Ten years or so later, I am afraid I was wrong.

I remember being eighteen years old and visiting a friend at Uptown Records who worked in the video promotion department.  I knew that this particular label would want no part of the kind of music I was doing so I was there solely on a friendly visit between stops at companies to which I was better suited.  While sitting in the office with my friend, a young A and R approached us and asked her if I was busy and if I had good musical taste.  She gave him an answer he wanted to hear, so he asked me if I would do him a favor.  He brought me into an empty conference room where on the table, sat a boom box, and a large cardboard box (the kind reams of printer paper come in) over flowing with demo tapes.  He explained that this was just what they had received in the past three days and he was busy doing something regarding the release of Soul 4 Real’s debut album. He then asked me if I would take a listen.  I told him I wasn’t going to be long and didn’t possibly have enough time to listen to all those tapes.  He said I didn’t have to. “Just listen to the first 20 or 30 seconds of the first song on each one. If you hear ANYTHING wrong with it, put it back in the box.  If you hear something that is major label quality, set it aside.” “Sure why not,” I said, and dove right in.  In thirty minutes I must have gone through fifty tapes.  I found one that was worth a follow up listen.  Only one.

Demo tapesI still get to walk through label offices every so often and I can’t remember the last time I have seen a box of tapes/ cds. That’s because they no longer exist.  The box of tapes is now called, the internet.  When the music industry collapsed and music joined the all-digital cyber universe, the barriers to entering music collapsed along with it.  What a wonderful thing it became that ANYONE could now make a song and unleash it upon the world, and what a terrible thing it became that ANYONE could now make a song and unleash it upon the world.  Artists like me had spent many frustrating years chastising the music filtering process in which labels engaged.  Like any filter, it kept a great deal of crap from reaching people, but it often kept great music which didn’t meet what a musician might call, “frivolous criteria,” out of the public ear.  At the time, I focused on the latter. I didn’t appreciate (until the filter was removed completely) the significance of the former. The internet is a bastion of noise.  There are too many so-called artists putting out too much music and so much of it is somewhere between awful and mediocre for both objective and subjective reasons. Freedom isn’t free, and although most of today’s music damn near is, you pay for it in time when attempting to find something you like. Trying to discover just one new thing you can listen to out of this virtual box of demo tapes is quite literally like finding a needle in a haystack.  As a result, music services, websites and blogs have emerged in attempt to streamline and validate the product for the listener.  But they don’t really help. Validation can often be purchased for a small fee and because the consumer now pays next to nothing for music, the revenue from these types of operations is typically generated on the supply side.  As a result, it is against their self-interest to be critical. The supply of big dreamers making music is virtually limitless while the demand is not.  Reaching the discerning listener is more difficult than it has ever been because a person with any kind of sophisticated musical taste will not waste his or her time combing through boxes and boxes of tapes just to find one cassette of merit. But a non-sophisticated listener who relishes  his own “consumer power” to register an up or down vote, will comb the desert with zeal; rejecting out of hand even the rare quality talent they come across in favor of something that appeals to their undeveloped musical taste.  This explains a Solja Boy. It explains a Chief Keef.  It explains the young kids who see those artists and think to themselves, “I can do that,” and post the first song THEY HAVE EVER RECORDED on Soundcloud and iTunes. Of course you can do that! Almost anyone can! Learn to play a musical instrument! Twenty years ago, the demo tape of the artist they are emulating would not have made it 30 seconds in the boombox before it would have been discarded.

The demo tape barrier isn’t the only one that has fallen.  I probably recorded 300 songs in my basement before my crew and I had honed our talents to the point where someone went into their pocket and gave us money to go to a recording studio.  Believe it or not, there are now artists with commercially available product, who have never set foot inside a real recording studio!  I meet them all of the time. These are people who think a laptop and a USB mic can replace a studio.  While these are great tools for pre-production, they can rarely create the “major label quality” sound my Uptown Records A and R buddy was looking for years ago. But the major label barely exists anyways, so why not save the studio money and put some crappy sounding record on the internet?  The younger listener is now generally so used to hearing low quality, poorly recorded, poorly mixed, and unbelievably distorted and loud music, that they don’t even know what a great recording is supposed to sound like any way.  Big Lil’ Young now has access to the boombox, and he’s filling the bandwidth with his hackneyed attempts at making music.  How does a supremely creative and talented artist without major label funding, cut through the noise?

phonorecordsNot long ago, there were even built in barriers to entry for those of us who went the independent label route.  In order to compete in media outlets with major label product, one had to present it like it was just that.  It cost money to use or build a pro recording facility that produced that sound quality. You HAD to have the record you were pushing on vinyl or DJs couldn’t play it.  That cost MORE money.  Pushing your record meant giving it away to a lot of people.  Radio, press, record pools etc.  (Each time we put out a record, we would fill a mini-van from top to bottom with record mailers, back it up to the loading dock of the post office and spend $1500 in postage alone!) The expertise and money required for such an endeavor took time to orchestrate and the time it took to develop the musical talents worthy of such risks, was even greater.  Reaching the point where one could release a record independently was a major accomplishment in and of itself.  When we began shooting videos in 1998, the attention we received for just being able to pull it off would be worth a million of today’s YouTube views.  Today, people shoot music videos on cell phones and that’s pretty damn cool, but there is something to be said for all that needed to be learned and achieved to reach such a milestone.  People still managed to make awful records, but they paid a hefty price when they did.  This barrier to entry actually insured that quality records would stand out if the artist met certain criteria while getting to that point.  Records are now released independently with very little skin in the game.  If an artist does have money, it isn’t used to perfect the product.  It is used to pay all of the filters of validation I described above.  (ANYONE can put a music video on XXL’s home page for a week for $1300. ANYONE!) Do you trust today’s listener to listen to a record or look at a video and accurately judge the talent and skill it took to make it? I sure didn’t trust the label executive to do it twenty years ago, but I must say they were far better at it than today’s modern listener.  I know I may sound like a grumpy old man, but let us be honest with ourselves and call a spade a spade.

Recording_contractIt is just too easy now.  Rappers don’t learn how to make their own music or find other musicians and create a unique sound.  They go to Soundclick and purchase beats for ten bucks!  Rappers don’t build fan bases any more. They buy Twitter followers and YouTube views and hyper-inflate social media to force everyone else to do the same.  Labels don’t develop artists any more.  They sit with their trimmed down staff and limited budgets and wait.  They wait for the act to do all of the work.  They wait for an artist to find some way of over exposing himself on his own with whatever stilted piece of gimmicky junk he can come up with, then they swoop in, sign him to a 360 deal, exploit and use him up in two years, then spit him right back onto the block where he started from.  No hiring a producer to sit in the studio with the youngster and show him the ropes for a year.  No vocal lessons, very little media training, no performance coaching and no thought for the artist’s long-term career. It is all about making the most amount of quick money with the least amount of investment as possible.  Gone are the days of a label signing and developing ten acts so that one could blow up and pay for the other nine.  Gone are the days when an artist was pimped out of his mechanicals, but at least still controlled his publishing, image and likeness.

I want music that is slow-cooked and not micro-waved.  I can’t believe I’m saying it. I want my corrupt music industry filter back.  It was better than this bullshit.

02
Feb
12

Recording Studio Etiquette – Lesson 1

This will be the first of a probably never-ending series within my blog that will outline proper recording studio etiquette.  As the owner of a commercial recording facility for sixteen years, I believe I am as qualified as one can be to speak on this subject.  Hopefully, you will at least be entertained and perhaps learn from my observations and analysis.

Since this is lesson 1, let’s start at the beginning.  Real recording studios operate like doctor’s offices and law firms, not fast food restaurants.  Recording studios see clients by appointment and will most likely be unable to accommodate you walking in off the street.  It is totally unprofessional to show up at a recording studio, presumably while staff and clients are in sessions, and ask for a tour or worse, try to buy studio time on site for immediate use.  This happens at my facility at minimum once  a week.  Someone calls asking for our hours and informs us that they will be coming by in a little bit to do some recording.   It’s even worse when they show up at our door wanting to use the studio.  These are people who have never used our facility before and have no history with us.   I then have to  explain that we are booked for the day and that they have to call and set up an account before booking sessions.  Busy studios like ours usually book a week to ten days in advance.  Even if no one were using the studio I can’t just work with someone I’ve never met who walks in off the street.  I have seen a couple of ragtag studios attempt a fast food business model and almost all of them fail because inevitably, people either go to real studios and see that is not the way the business is practiced, or worse, the studio gets robbed and eventually closes because they can no longer obtain affordable insurance.

I once had a new client call the studio to inquire about using the facility.  After a nice conversation he told me he wanted to schedule some time so I began to take down his information so I could set up a new account for him in our system.  When I asked him for his name, he gave me a nickname.  I told him I was cool calling him that but I needed his legal name for liability purposes.  He told me he didn’t give out his legal name to anyone.  I told him that we would be unable to do business together. He got angry.  I explained to him that we can’t have people using our $100,000 + facility without a responsible party attached in the event something is stolen, broken etc.  We need to know with whom we are doing business.  I told him I’m sure his physician and lawyer knew his real name and if he wanted me to be his engineer, so would I.  He gave in under the pressure of the logic of my argument, but I was almost upset with myself for even making the argument in the first place.  How likely would it be that this person would make a good client if he’s that unprofessional?  I should have just told him to have a nice day and hung up the phone.

So in summary… Studios aren’t restaurants.  You need an appointment and you need at least a semi-formal business arrangement.  If you don’t want a copy of your invoice, that’s fine.  But it will be in our system and accounted for.  If this is unacceptable to you, I believe there is a so-called studio in Northeast being run by undercover cops that would gladly accept you walking up to the door and knocking.

11
Apr
09

Zechariah Wise Talks Performance Royalties

02
Apr
09

Interview with Zechariah Wise on ASEAN TV




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This guy is beat! Check out my buddy's grey beard though. #wellington #dachshund #dachshundsofinstagram So this is what is replacing the Afghan restaurant across the street from the studio. They've already broken ground. The entire neighborhood is being flipped. It's only a matter of time before they come for my old ass building.

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