Music business perils or the struggling muso

I’m just a hobbyist but I feel there’s a vast difference between doing music as a hobby without any financial issues involved and doing it as a business.


There was a point one of the speakers made at the AustralAsian Music Business Conference by one of the speakers who ran a label -don’t be shocked or offended when confronted with negotiations about figures and percentages if you get signed to a major label. The speaker had spoken of instances when musicians felt it was offensive when business details were brought to the table. If you want to make a living from music you have to accept the business side of it, you can’t just turn your nose up at the business in the name of artist integrity or idealism.


Of course most people who aspire to make a living as songwriters or performing artists do it out of the desire to make a living from something they enjoy and that is meaningful to them. In that sense it’s a great privilege if they ever get the chance.


But there is a drawback in that once one’s work of art becomes commercially successful there are commercial interests at stake and it’s no longer just the personal ownership of the songwriter. There are all the other parties with interest in the song -the record company, who probably owns the master of the recording, possibly a publisher with up to 50% stake in ownership for it’s promoting of the song, the manager who makes 15% of all the artists proceeds and possibly even the producer, who may also have a stake in royalties of the recordings.


Furthermore, the performing artist may be under pressure for the song to do well in order to use the royalty proceeds to pay off the advance and recoupment on recording costs -so even if an album sells 100 000 copies, it doesn’t mean the artist will make a profit.


I’m guessing in the pop world, there’s even more pressure. If sales are poor, then there’s a chance you won’t be resigned to a major label, and I’ve heard statistics where on average only 1 out of 20 artists really hit the jackpot while the others rarely left in obscurity. The record company relies on this big jackpot, the big star, to bring in the revenue to pay for all the other ‘failures’, though I’m not sure if that’s the way things work now for major labels in the current media environment.


With that commercial pressure, a performing artist is more constrained when it comes to exploring alternative artistic avenues or changing genre.


Of course, if you’re doing music as a hobby, you won’t have the time to work on your craft compared to if it was a job, but you can be indulgent and adventurous musically as much as you want to be. There are no artistic constraints.


And it seems to me from my reading, the other drawback of being a professional artist and songwriter is that it’s simply such a complicated and unreliable business. On the one hand it’s such a ‘hit and miss’ thing, especially with songwriting -the anticipation that the next song you write could be a hit, but it probably won’t. In fact the odd are probably around 10 000 to 1 if you’re an unknown.


One the other hand, should a song hit the jackpot and become a hit, all the little details beforehand you made with co-songwriters and producers etc become exponentially and financially very important.


This could also be the case especially if you’re in a band.


You say you wrote the lyrics and should get 50% for it, but the bassist contributed to the bridge and reckons he gets half of the lyric share. And then the drummer didn’t really contribute to the melody or the harmony, how much should his share be? And of course, you didn’t write a split letter at the time because you were all mates and assumed that it wouldn’t matter because you’d all have buckets of money if you ‘made it’.


When the financial stakes are so high, I’m guessing tensions could rise and relationships could become soured, and the lawyers probably get a fair chunk of the royalties in the end.


This is the issue I’m repeatedly coming across in books like Shane Simpson’s Music Business. The details are crucial for what might occur in the future, though it probably won’t, that is, with the paradigm of hoping for the hit record. So much care needs to be put into setting up everything, from a split letter for copyright ownership, to every contract along the way -with the publisher, with the manager, with the record label, with the producer. I imagine that if an artist isn’t careful, he or she or they may end up with the raw end of the stick.


That’s why the new ‘DIY’ media environment is a bit more encouraging. Rather than a band basing their hopes on the hit record, they can base it on more reliable factors such as a stable fan base. With so much more information available and direct contact with fans, they can budget and supply recordings/performances accordingly.


However, contracts and royalty issues and splits and negotiating may still become important if the band hope to get their songs in a film or TV program or add, but it won’t necessarily be what they’re relying on.


And there’s more leeway for the ‘hobby’ musician to compromise -sell a few of his songs on itunes, make a record when he knows he can sell a few thousand to fans around the world and know which town or city he’ll get a big enough crowd to do a show in. So what if it’s not his full-time gig?


Il4 Copyright blur


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