by Tom Hess
To get the most out of this article, it is critical that you read Part 1 to this series before reading on…
…There are few things more tragic than a musician who has invested all of himself/herself into a life-long dream (such as pursuing a big professional music career) only to fail because of a single bad choice or a single important, but overlooked or underestimated, fact. Sadly it happens all the time.
Imagine investing tens of thousands of hours over many years, studying hard, learning as much as you can, to hone all the various musical skills you want to develop, striving for excellence in everything that you do, strengthening your creativity, investing piles of money on everything from music gear to your music education (music lessons, classes, etc.). Then doing all the necessary non-musical things to position oneself in the music business such as: making key music business contacts, developing a fan base, music promotion, etc. Now imagine that a single, overlooked or underestimated, element was missing. Or maybe a fatal mistake was made inadvertently on your part. Something that seemed so insignificant actually caused you to be seen as “undesirable” or “high risk” in the eyes of record companies, music career managers, producers or publishers.
From the musician’s frame of reference, what appears to be common sense or sound logic to us, may not be congruent with the common sense or sound logic from the music business (record companies, music career managers, music publishers, music producers, etc.) frame of reference. I’m referring to the risks that music business companies undertake by investing in people as described in Part 1 of this article.
As an example, I have a friend (who shall remain anonymous in order to not embarrass him or his band), who is extremely talented and one of the best musicians I know. His band, singer and music are all truly world class. The songs are built upon wonderful musical and lyrical depth and integrity. At the same time, their sound is accessible enough to the common person to be on rock radio stations around the world. The band is highly motivated, has an amazing work ethic, and possesses almost everything to be a mega huge band.
On several occasions I’ve offered words of advice on how the band could be seen as significantly more valuable to the record companies and music career managers they were in negotiations with over the last couple of years. I offered to help not only because the leader of the band is my friend, but because I know the band has enormous potential and a real chance of fulfilling their stated goals.
There was no need for this band to try to “be in the right place, at the right time” because they have been in the right place, at the right time, many times. They’ve been in close contact with high level record companies and management firms. In general, these key music business executives liked the band on both a musical level and a personal one. However, time after time no significant deals were offered by any of the people or companies they had been talking directly to. What is frustrating for my friend and his band is that these music business companies and people didn’t spend any of their time telling the band the truth about why they are not interested in taking the next step with the band. If the perceived problem cannot be fixed easily and quickly, they won’t waste their time even discussing the problem. Instead they’ll stop returning phone calls and emails or give the band some superficial bogus reasons why no deal will be offered. Some of these so-called reasons range from, “our company is not looking to sign any new bands this year”, to “we’re having some legal issues on our end and can’t sign you now”. Of course these statements were obviously untrue and only served to get the band to give up and go away by showing that there is no chance to move forward. It is a fact that these lines are merely an excuse, because if any of that were true, the music business companies would never have invested weeks or months into talking to the band before offering a deal.
So what was really happening? Why did the music business executives even bother to talk to the band in the first place if they had no real interest in offering them a real opportunity and contracts???
…well… the answer to the second question is that they DID have serious intentions on signing the band. The answer to the first question is that the music business companies were doing research on the band. They were testing the musicians (especially the leaders) of the band. No I’m not talking about doing research on what the band’s songs sound like, or their style and image. Those things were already clearly known from the press kit (the package the band sent to the music business companies which contained, their CD, photos of the band members, DVD of video footage of the band, website info, their biographies etc.). And it was that press kit (as well as some persistence and lots of emails and phone calls, etc.) that got the music company’s attention – all of that happened before the company ever returned the band’s calls and emails to begin talks about working together…
As you can see, getting in front of some key music business executives wasn’t the problem, the band has done this several times on its own. Their consistent problem was that the band could never seem to close the deal. Every time business people probed deeper and researched more about the band, there was something that kept coming up in each case that killed the deal. To the band, it was not only extremely frustrating to go through this over and over again, but the worst part was that they weren’t ever given the whole story from the record companies and music career managers about what the problem was.
The record company people were also frustrated because they had found yet another great band with great potential but it turned out to be another band who didn’t have the “complete package” together. And what is worse is that during such times, the record companies were losing thousands of dollars and human resources by investing into the initial series of talks, meetings (flying the musicians around the country to make the meetings happen) and on some preproduction work.
What was frustrating to me was to see this great band suffer like this. We had several conversations about what I believed was holding the band’s opportunities back. Yet he (my friend) didn’t seem to believe in what I was advising him to do and change. Instead he went back home, wrote new songs that he thought might be a bit more radio friendly, then rewrote them again to make them heavier, then rewrote them again to make them less progressive. He chose to focus on the band’s sound (which was never the problem). In the end, none of that mattered since the songs (in all their various versions) were truly great marketable songs.
What the record companies and music career managers were really looking for when talking to the band is a long list of things that make up a complete package. The fundamentals of that longer list were:
- The level of overall potential value related to both the band as a whole, AND in all of its individual members.
- The amount of Manageable Risk associated in investing into the band’s short and long-term music career, AND into the music career of each of its individual members.
- The Quantity and Quality of existing physical proof regarding the above 2 items.
As already stated, the complete list is much longer, but the essence of those items lies in the main three points above. What I’ve written here is a broad generalization (and somewhat of an oversimplification) of the situations regarding this band and in how the music business works in dealing with brand new artists in the present day. What is important to notice here is the business’s focus on what values, risks and proof are related to the musicians “as people”. After so many years of doing all the right things, in terms of musical elements and self promotion, where the band continued to fall short was in areas that its leaders overlooked in the beginning, and then underestimated later, even after repeated conversations about these issues.
There are several reasons why I have chosen not to go into the specific details about what (I think) the band was doing wrong. Here are the main reasons:
- Out of personal respect for the band, I want to keep the people’s names anonymous. Two major things the band was doing “wrong” could easily reveal the identity of the band. It wasn’t anything illegal or immoral, but they are aspects of things they continue to do to this day. My intentions are neither to promote nor hurt the band’s image in this article.
- Some of what they do is centered around the individuals in the band and those things can only be unique to these people. Other bands would not have the same type of issues as this band does, so some aspects I didn’t write about are not relevant to the vast majority of other unsigned bands… if it won’t be relevant then there seemed no point to discuss these specifics in the article.
Okay, now onto some things I can discuss… (these are common within bands). This band had some problems that many other good bands also have.
Although there was a founding member of the band who was the primary composer and labeled “the leader”, there were significant power struggles within the band’s members. Band politics are very common (especially when a band sees big opportunities), people sometimes become greedy and do things to “position themselves” within the band to gain more power in the band and also in negotiating with music business companies. As an example, some people in the band wanted more royalty rights and felt the leader of the band was not being fair. The leader’s position was, “hey I wrote most of the songs, therefore I deserve most of the publishing rights, I’m not going to give that up! That’s potential money that I earned!” Then you have a singer who says, “yeah, well if it wasn’t for my voice, we wouldn’t even be here in this meeting!”
It’s one thing to have differences in a band (it’s going to happen as the band grows), but it doesn’t help when the business people see that. When a power struggle blows out of control, that says “THIS BAND, AS A BAND, IS A BIG RISK, if they are having these types of major fights amongst themselves now, we definitely are not going to put them on tour and stick these 5 people on a tour bus for 3 months!” and without a tour, records don’t sell as well.
This next issue wasn’t the band’s biggest problem, but it was an issue that HAD to be resolved before their “potential” big shot music career manager was going to want to work with them. At least one record company (and probably all of the others they talked to) and the music career manager was prepared to offer deals to the “individuals” but not the band as a whole. They could see who was of most value in the band and who represented the most risk. But due to the unique nature of this band, offering deals to the individuals wasn’t really possible (this falls under both items 1 and 2 above). The singer and the writer (my friend) were the most valuable people in this case, but strangely, their value “apart from each other” was much less than it was as a team and the music business people clearly knew that. The other members could have been replaced if needed, but primary issues were centered around the main two people.
In my opinion, the band’s biggest downfall was in not understanding (or willing to change their minds about) how the music business works – about risks, about investments, about business, about perceptions, about power, (about their image off the stage!), about how the game is played and why things in the music business are the way they are. The people in this band wouldn’t listen to sincere and good advice or change their ideas. This is because all of them (the entire band) were idealists when it came to business. This means, they were focused only on how they thought the music business should be and not on how it actually is. Musicians typically think that the music business’s role should fulfill some sort of “let’s support the musicians and the music” idea. But that is not its primary role. Like it or not, this is a business. People who run music companies and businesses are no different than the people who run Walmart, Coca-Cola, or General Motors. This is music BUSINESS. People in the business are here to make money. The VAST majority of business companies are not here to support your, my, or anyone else’s musical vision (unless they are going to make tons of money on it). This is neither good or bad, it is simply reality.
Being an idealist, as a musician, is a great thing in my opinion. And when we are discussing music I’m a total idealist (as many of you probably are). If you want to remain TRULY idealist, then you might seriously consider investing your own money and making, recording, releasing and promoting your records on your own. (this is the path I choose with the HESS band. We sell records around the world, but I did it on my own, by myself, with all of my own resources).
But if you don’t want to do that (which is okay), then you are seeking music business companies to do it for you and pay for it all with their own money and resources. (This is how it was done with my other band, HolyHell). But unless you can command MASSIVE power (that means you have already sold a million records or more) then you usually cannot have your cake and eat it too. My friend, and the rest of his band, wanted to have their cake and eat it too. And now they are simply without cake… Hungry…
The main intent of my original article wasn’t to speak of individual examples of things that went wrong with this band, it was to illustrate a much broader and more important idea which I began in part 1 of this article series. Sure, seeing the examples I just wrote about above may be helpful, but the value you can get from this is limited. Someone reading this might say, “ok good, now I know to beware of power struggles and resolve them BEFORE we sit down to talk to business people. – I’m good to go now.”
Focusing on the “examples” would be a mistake. Focusing on the general principles of the much bigger picture offered in my articles is where all the real potential value lies.
People in general, and musicians in particular, have a habit of focusing on what to do to “make it”. Musicians often neglect to focus equally on what not to do to “make it”… And that was the source (in my opinion) of the band’s problems. They did all the “right things”. But neglected to address the “other things” that were making them a higher risk to the business. Focusing on both sides of the equation (what to do and what ”not” to do) is so important, and that is the reason why we spend so much time and effort to correct this in the Music Careers Mentoring Program.