2 Steps Forward & 2 Steps Back
The absolute worst part of being a musician is the overwhelming time it takes to understand and to run the business. It took me years to even begin the tedious journey to figure it out and I am still annoyed with the weekly upkeep. Has it helped me financially … yes! Is it totally necessary … absolutely! Dealing with it has really helped me understand business expectations as far as knowing the lingo, level of seriousness, and the scope you have for your career. So let’s dive in.
Get an LLC, a business checking account, and learn how to use some kind of tax software. You need an LLC so that you can write off business expenses, and there are a lot of them. How many times have you discussed music over a meal or coffee? How many packs of guitar strings do you buy each year? An LLC and learning about being self-employed and the tax benefits that will help you out at the end of the year are huge. When I was teaching a ton and playing church gigs galore as well as everything else and I received six 1099’s at the end of the year in 2009 and I was told that I owed nearly $4,000 in taxes. There’s nothing to do in that situation but laugh because, of course I didn’t have the money. But I was dumb, and sure I kept my receipts and categorized them, but it took me until 2013 to finally get my LLC game together, and it has saved my ass! Coupled with Quick Books, and getting a business checking account, it makes it waaaaaay easier to keep track of things and gives me the freedom come April, to not panic. Whatever you do, get some type of system together that will save you money even though it costs you time and energy and it completely lacks the stuff of inspiration.
Protect and track your intellectual property. Copyrights are necessary especially when you are collaborating. It’s $55 to copyright one piece of music. However, you can copyright an entire album for the same price as long as it’s listed as a collection. Choose one; ASCAP, BMI, or SEASAC. They will track your sales and streamed plays. They are in charge of paying you what you’re due. If I had to go back and do it again, I would choose BMI over ASCAP. List every song you’ve played on or written. If you can, get a representative that you become familiar with. Also, get yourself an ISRC code. It helps organizations like ASCAP track your sales and gives you better analytics to digest. Again, all of these things are terribly boring and terribly necessary things you must do to show that you are serious to industry professionals. Everyone in the music industry who makes music would describe themselves as creative and passionate surging with original ideas, but are you dependable? Are you ready to sell your tunes and make it easy to do business with a publishing company or will they have to wait on you and watch you scramble to get your shit together. Organization; devoid of trendy clothes, hot licks, and a really edgy narrative does one thing really well … makes life easier for you and anyone you do business with.
Understand the complex hierarchy of the music business. As if radio stations, record labels, and music magazines weren’t flooded already with an avalanche of bands and singer songwriters knocking on their door with press kits and CD’s … here comes the internet welcoming every shyster and delusional rock-star and MC on the planet. There is not enough time in the day to listen to all the material submitted to industry folks whether it is blogs or local radio stations. They depend on trusted sources to weed out the garbage. Do not be fooled though!!! Everyone who has ever been on reverbnation or soundcloud gets a message from somebody that promises exposure. Do your research and fact check everything that they list on their resume along with their clientele. Fees are to be expected, and patience is necessary. Remember that if you’re serious, you’ve got to understand that this is a marathon not a sprint.
Market your way towards legitimacy. The legitimacy I’m speaking of has little to do with your musical chops. There is no doubt that plenty of great artists come and go with nobody knowing who they are. They never reach a point of financial stability or creative expression because they don’t have the time to work on the chops that they need that take years and years to develop or … they don’t take off time creating to gain the recognition they need that will free up their time to create more later down the road. Hence the title of this piece, 2 steps forward and 2 steps back. I loathe having to market. Taking photos of what I’m doing is difficult for me because I don’t think to do it. I’m in the moment of doing and I don’t like to switch my mind to “prove” that I make music. But I’m learning to do it. I have to. I have to prove to industry professionals that I understand the game and am willing to play. So you get all your social media together, make your website, and begin aggregating your content and trying your luck by raising your digital hand and saying to the public, but also to the professionals you work with, “I’m easy to deal with. I’m in the game. Let’s make something cool.” We’re all crossing our fingers that the right people will see that working with us provides a creative and financial advantage, but cross your fingers with business strategy as well as your scales. And find people who you connect artistically with, and stop wasting time with people who don’t care about what you have to offer. It doesn’t matter how great your whaling ship is if you’re in a land locked environment. There are no whales. Go where there are whales.
Make & honor contracts that plainly state obligations and intentions. What has been so difficult for me to understand is that trust has multiple levels and that expectations are often not understood which could greatly complicate matters. I’ve avoided this for far too long in my life, but I know that they work for several reasons and not just to protect your own ass. The greatest reward is in gaining an understanding on what dreams you both wish to make a reality and how you are going to do it. I’ve learned so much about others and myself when we go to the proverbial drawing board to pour out ideas. Once they’re out of your head and on a piece of paper they appear different. Most often they are less whole than you thought or completely ridiculous concerning timeline, cost, etc. In any case, everyone benefits from them because it gives both parties something to refer back to if things go off course in any way. It acts as a great stabilizer. Most often my own contracts have been indicated within copyrights as far as percentages go. In any case, it’s how the business works so becoming comfortable with them by initiating them or receiving them in a positive way is going to smooth things out for the most part.
Again, doing all of this is going to eat up your time. There’s plenty more out there and better people to explain each one of these facets. But if I can, in all my blunders, save or inspire any artists to take their careers and sense of self worth to the next level by avoiding my mistakes, then I feel that it’s my duty to do so. I’ve been going through it. I’m learning about it, and I don’t necessarily like it. Would I rather score strings or load songs and fill out forms for ASCAP? It’s a no brainer. BUT … I want to be around people, the elders of the industry, to teach me what I want and need to know. I want my art to surprise me in its boldness and technical execution. I want to work with some of the best out there in film along with the behind the scenes giants. And the only way to do that is to prove myself as a worthy addition to the industry. Which means yes, I’m going to have to take that break from creating and get my ducks in a row, or those that I need to see me will not know that I have the strength and skill to survive in an extremely competitive industry.