November 30, 2001 8:56 AM   Subscribe

This is a must read for anyone that is in a band or that has friends in a band.
A lot of people will already know about these practices, I'm posting this for those that don't.
posted by TiggleTaggleTiger (22 comments total)
You need to be like Motley Crue, and just have labels create a bidding war over you.
posted by Mark at 9:02 AM on November 30, 2001

For more stuff like this, check out Negativland's website.
posted by jeb at 9:06 AM on November 30, 2001

This is sooooooo a year ago last summer when everyone was accusing Courtney of "ripping off" this article for her letter to fellow artists. Knowing that she was (in my view, for a good cause) repopularizing Steve Albini's point was le thing for showing off how knowledgeable you were about music and how unaffected by Love's soaring fortunes (which of course make her no longer interesting or praiseworthy).
posted by dhartung at 9:25 AM on November 30, 2001

God, this is so true. And sad. In a shortlived music promotion career, I saw band after band get screwed in much the same way, if they got the label to even bite hard enough to make an offer. One group I worked with ran up a $40,000 tab just trying to get in the game.

Ever talk to someone who used to be in the record biz? Depressing, disgruntled stuff.
posted by me3dia at 9:29 AM on November 30, 2001

Another enjoyable piece of Albini writing are his Eyewitness record reviews (Google cache). They're not as informational as the music-biz essay, but pretty damn funny.
posted by ry at 10:02 AM on November 30, 2001

It's funny how bands never seem to realize that all a major label is doing for you is giving you a giant loan. With shitty interest.

By the way, as someone who works in the touring industry (I book a club), I've always thought that Albini's numbers were flawed. I mean, yes, definitely, the bands just about ALWAYS get screwed, he's totally right about that... but how does a band sell 250,000 records yet only gross $50,000 on a five week tour?

Say four shows a week for the five weeks (which is a pretty low estimate), and you end up with $2500 gross per show. Which sounds to me like the kind of gross you'd have at a 200-person venue. Which is not the kind of venue one plays when one is selling 250,000 records.

I wish I had the time to crunch the numbers, to see what I would come up with.
posted by bcwinters at 10:09 AM on November 30, 2001

I always liked Steve Albini.

This is a good article to sum up typical record label processes nowaday, and I'm definitely showing this to a lot of people that I know.
posted by trioperative at 10:30 AM on November 30, 2001

this is so totally true. it's also the reason many bands don't ever quite make it. i had some friends in college, the JudyBats, who were the darlings of the scene. they got scouted by sire for a multi-album deal, and then never promoted once the first album proved to be an underground hit but top-40 washout. apparently sire had ideas about their popularity they'd never told the band. contract cancelled, JudyBats fragmented and tired, end of story. sad.
posted by patricking at 10:48 AM on November 30, 2001

So is it better to have been screwed and gone back to your day job, or never screwed at all?

For all the crap you have to put up with, you still get to be an artist for a while. A rockstar, even.
posted by jragon at 10:53 AM on November 30, 2001

I always liked the Judybats.
posted by thirteen at 11:38 AM on November 30, 2001

Hey, I remember the JudyBats. They were pretty cool. Fat lot that means to them now, my thinking that, but as they say, pain makes you beautiful. It is a shame that so many bands have to go through all this crap though. It has to be hard to take it slow and not be greedy when you are working your ass off and eating ramen noodles, and seeing shit on TV and hearing it on the radio all the time. The music industry is not really suited for musicians; it is suited for whores. Sometimes you encounter musicians who are also whores; they tend to do really well if they can remember that they are whores first and musicians second.
posted by donkeymon at 11:38 AM on November 30, 2001

I would sell my soul in a second, I am all about 15 minutes of fame, and if some MegaComapny want to sponsor it, I'm not going to complain. I can go on selling my "art" at the 16th minute.

I work for an independant jazz label in NYC, even at this level, I still see some of the artists get screwed. Size doesn't matter.
posted by remlapm at 11:41 AM on November 30, 2001

Ever talk to someone who used to be in the record biz? Depressing, disgruntled stuff.

I was in 'the biz' for about 14 years... yeah, it ain't no picnic. Especially for people like me, who were motivated by the enthusiasm of fandom rather than some misguided notion that it is a 'glamour' profession. There's really nothing glamourous about it, unless you're the big star... and they make up a tiny, tiny fraction of the workforce.

Anyway, yes, labels have a long history of doing bad things. But guess what -- musicians aren't exactly saints either, and the majority of those who go around bellyaching about how they 'got screwed' probably in reality got more than they ever should have in the first place. Yes, there are far too many stories of sterling talent getting steamrolled by the machine, but there are far more stories of talentless hacks with good connections getting far more stardom than should rightfully be theirs. The reality is, in most cases, the labels assume the lion's share of the risks, and 9 times out of 10 that risk results in nada. The artist has the power to say 'no' to any deal they don't think is fair. And they also have the power to take the deal anyway and then spend all the money on a smack habit and never produce a single worthwhile song.

Someone made the point that a record deal is really little more than a loan with extremely unfavorable terms. That may be true to a degree. But along with that high interest rate comes the artist's ultimate trump card -- band breaks up, dies, or otherwise fails to sell a single record, and the loan need not ever be repaid.
posted by spilon at 12:35 PM on November 30, 2001

The artist has the power to say 'no' to any deal they don't think is fair.

Except that the record companies also hold the keys to the most effective promotional venues: radio, mtv, distributors who sell to the big chains.

AND, the big five record companies don't compete in offering good deals. The collude, price-fix, and so on. There is no competition, so the power to say "no" to a bad deal amounts to jack shit.
posted by jeb at 1:39 PM on November 30, 2001

Judybats! I liked them too.
posted by rodii at 3:05 PM on November 30, 2001

AND, the big five record companies don't compete in offering good deals. They collude, price-fix, and so on. There is no competition, so the power to say "no" to a bad deal amounts to jack shit.

As long as you have way more people who want to be rockstars than you do people who are willing to treat them as such (by buying their CDs and flocking to stadia to see them play), wannabe rockstars are going to get treated like crap.

This isn't news, it's first year microeconomics.
posted by jaek at 3:22 PM on November 30, 2001

This isn't news, it's first year microeconomics.

Not everyone took microeconomics. This article puts it into perspectivce for those who haven't realized it yet.
posted by trioperative at 3:39 PM on November 30, 2001

Sorry... I was unclear. Musicians aren't getting the shaft because the current group of record companies are evil bastards. I mean, they are, but as long as lots of people want to become rock stars, record company execs could be saints and the bands would still get the shaft.

I think that studio musicians and bands playing local circuits don't get screwed nearly as hard, but it's not as glamorous of an occpuation. The Albini piece is all about the record companies sticking it to the musician, and could easily lead one to believe that all careers in music were hopeless.
posted by jaek at 4:32 PM on November 30, 2001

Albini's accounting is good ... but only for the artist who sells in the 75,000 to (say) 400,000 range .... you make the record company and your advisers nice dough, get nada for yourself.

If you sell less -- well, your record didn't have an audience, and nobody makes a dime.

If you sell more, you get into tour venues with 5X to 10X higher grosses (with no comparable large increase in costs) and income guarantees from promoters. A modestly successful band with a following can fairly easily negotiate a deal where the promoter network picks up >all< costs of the tour and pays the band $5/seat income free and clear for each seat/night they're booked into. 60 shows in 2,000 seat venues produces $600,000 -- after 25% to your representation (manager, lawyer, agent, PR, business manager) that's still $450,000 ... $90,000 each for a 5-piece band for 12 weeks' work.

Also, even if you were so stupid to sell a buy-out (no royalties) on your publishing for your first record, you won't make that mistake again. For a successful artist who writes their own songs, publishing is a huge revenue source, because it is almost all juice, rather than record sales, where 100 people eat on your tab before you get to sit down at the table. (Publishing pays you every time your record plays on the radio or at bar, restaurant or nightclub, the muzak version plays in a mall, etc.)

Also, after a couple of good-selling albums, the record companies will renegotiate your record deal. The advances go way up ($400K to $500K cash on delivery which is yours for good, in addition to separately paying for all the production costs). Although the up-front royalty rates usually stay crappy (10%-15% on 90% of lowest retail price; 0% for club sales, and a variety of other exclusions), a variety of nice things come in ... like increased royalty on full-price backlist (you get 20% or more after 2 years after release), a better split of synch fees (what you get when your record plays on movie or tv), etc.

The bottom line to everything, though, is market size. If you are a band which cannot realistically aspire to selling 700,000 or 800,000 records, you are far better off staying on an independent label which has some muscle. Although there are a few brilliant exceptions (like Nirvana or Pearl jam) who unpredicatably splash out to multi-millions on their first major label records, the course taken by the R.E.M. (for example) is surely the more prudent: sticking with a maxi-indie (the old I.R.S.) for six years until they new they had the market to get the major label thing going.
posted by MattD at 4:53 PM on November 30, 2001

the course taken by the R.E.M. (for example) is surely the more prudent: sticking with a maxi-indie (the old I.R.S.) for six years until they new they had the market to get the major label thing going.

Problem is, it's not always easy to tell an true indie label from a indie-like major label subsidiary.
posted by at 5:02 PM on November 30, 2001

I have known many, many bands over the years and used to see 4-6 shows a week, and in talking to people from everything to local bar bands to international superstars I have only heard of three circumstances that were in the performers' favour.

First were the purely local acts. They all had day jobs, and if they made beer money and had a good time every week, and after 5 yrs working the circuit put out a CD that sold a couple thousand copies, that was cool. Low expectations, often surprisingly great music.

I also knew of a band whose members were full time and supported themselves pretty well. But damn did they work at it. Across Canada and back three times a year for 4 years running, and if you can imagine the prairies in winter.... They made day job money, more or less, if their reporting to me was accurate. They broke up, obviously, and the old circuit they used to work has mostly fizzled up as dance clubs ascended in the late 90s.

The other situation that was great was the only true international superstar I have really spoken with. She stayed associated with an indie label but as far as I know pretty much owns it now, as the only way they could pay her was to give her pieces of the company. But she has good distibution worldwide, a strong back-catalog and sells lots and lots of tickets when she tours.

Everyone else I've spoken with is pretty bitter, even the realists who knew what they were getting into. Kinda sad, in a way, cause often the people who get screwed are really too young and inexperienced to be making such decisions without 'adult supervision'. Just glad my brother got out of it untarnished.
posted by mikel at 9:38 PM on November 30, 2001

The Internet is at least starting to change things. Marillion were offered such a crappy record deal that they decided to sell the album to the fans in advance. 13,000 people (including me) paid up front, which provided the capital to actually record and produce the album. EMI agreed to act as distributor, but Marillion retained the copyright to the music and a much better share of the royalties. From my point of view, the album they produced was much better than their previous two efforts, and I think having complete artisifc freedom helped.

Dodgy have copied the business model and The Levellers may do as well. It's the way forward.
posted by salmacis at 7:17 AM on December 3, 2001

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