8 Tips for Navigating TODAY’s Music Biz (and Retaining your Sanity)


Credit: Matt Herring


I recently read a post in the Music Professionals group on LinkedIn that asked whether musicians wanted to be ‘cheap or exceptional,’ and discussed why they ought to be standardising their rates to align with market value – but how does one determine market value when the audience expects free entertainment, and, what are the implications for vulnerable artists who, with no obvious model to follow, are left to take outdated advice as gospel?

Having sat on both sides of the fence – previously releasing through a major label, with many of the bells and whistles it can offer (publicists; stylist; designers; thousands of dollars to make music videos; national promotion worth hundreds of thousands), and then self-releasing as an independent artist (working solo with an extremely limited budget and a huge learning curve; £100 to make a music video; £0 for promotion), I thought some of my observations might be beneficial to fill in the gaps for up-and-coming artists as well as those of us sitting somewhere between “working to support my artistic ambition” and “I make music ….as a hobby.”

There’s no shame in making music as a hobby, or not to be making the income you used to from music – times have changed; the market is oversaturated (depending on what genre you’re working in, it may be super-oversaturated), and even “big stars” aren’t making what they used to from record sales alone; more often than not they’ve got additional revenue streams from licensing, cross-promotion, appearances, speaking engagements, and endorsements. If you’re just starting out (or extremely wedded to the past) you may also be familiar with the mythical profits that are “all in the merch,” but unless you’re consistently drawing huge engagement from a ravenous (and growing) audience, it’s really not.

The post that initially led me to write this one argued that too many artists are not pricing themselves appropriately – obtaining the wrong audience by selling their work too cheaply. It noted that artists will inevitably be competing with other acts, many of whom will perform or sell their music for nothing, and referenced a “true story” from the mid-90’s, in which an artist who’d effectively joined a moderately-known Bluegrass group as a session player, and made a chunk of change he hadn’t expected, simply because the bandleader (who’d been around forever) had the gumption to negotiate a then-sizeable sum.

The problem with using this example case in terms of its application to some contemporary artists – especially those of us working in pop, rock, hiphop or EDM – as you may have already guessed, is three-fold: firstly, he was talking about a niche (but devoutly-followed) style of music; secondly, the band’s leader had already been established within that niche, giving him a “proven track record;” and finally – IT WAS THE MID-90’s! These 3 points alone mean you may as well compare virtual-reality theme parks with Classic Nintendo’s Duck Hunt! 

Musicians are often bombarded with “top tips” in the form of blog posts by people who genuinely mean well in sharing their experiences, but are not best-placed to advise on strategies for pricing (or other topics) in the current market – no disrespect to the original poster; but we are speaking about two very different beasts, hence the need for more discussion. The faster technology changes and the cheaper it becomes, the more saturated the market; the more it shifts away from “how it used to be;” and the less directly applicable some “lessons” are.  You can find out that coffee is delicious from a 1950’s advert, but try offering that 5 cents at any café.

While I agreed with several of his points (don’t undervalue your work; charge a fee; etc) I felt he failed to take into consideration the huge (and growing) population of listeners who “expect” music to be free, the resulting pressure on artists to perform in exchange for exposure (whether it’s a gig, or writing and performing on someone’s track – without a fair cut – or indeed any – of the publishing), how the pressure to go along with this model impacts the market value, and therefore how we set out to value our work. 

Unlike some, I don’t denounce the “gig economy;” we artists have always been familiar with it, and it’s how we often thrive – but I do feel that the same expectation which is pressuring artists also affects the those working (for pay) in the music biz – so, with less capital themselves, many label A&R’s are looking for artists who offer increasingly larger returns for minimal investment, despite the majority of new talent being resource-poor. Rather than taking a gamble investing in development, it’s the artists who are A) expected to offer up a glossy, final project before being seen as valuable; and, B) encouraged to work for free by A&R’s, labels, and other “bigger fish” –essentially being groomed to leap at the chance to sport this Emperor’s New Clothing, tarted-up as “exposure.” 

The first problem with this model is not that it is exploitative, or that exploitation has become the industry standard (since those points are hardly a newsflash for anyone working in entertainment), but that there is very little to contradict the idea that one has to work for free indefinitely in order to be valued at some distant later date. By accepting this norm (which is easily done, since it’s backed up with the reminder “you have to spend money to make money” often mis-sold as “paying your dues”), artists become vulnerable to a cycle in which they are constantly working to feed others’ careers, but not being properly fed, paid or credited themselves, while their efforts to establish themselves are minimised. The artist who works for exposure alone risks buying into the sales pitches of a broken model that ultimately declare talent to be less valuable than follower count.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t eat exposure. Unfortunately, I think for a lot of extremely talented artists, we have already priced ourselves out of the market simply by not being free. I licensed a song a few years ago, and was mortified when an agent began demanding sums that would have been “acceptable in the 90’s” but which elicited an uncomfortable laugh from the music manager – who said he was asking for “Rolling Stones money.” I’m not exaggerating – the fee he had counter-offered was responded to with an “uh, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but that’s what we would pay to use (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Most of us are not making music because we unselfishly just want to put it out there with no return, though, so why are musicians afraid to upset the apple carts, or even buying a cart of rotten ones simply to showcase our own shiny fresh apple is sitting in the right place? Because artists are not getting valuable advice from mentors – who are often hoarding their secrets to combat oversaturation, or who are too frightened of the market’s volatility to offer anything they’ve learned, lest it become outdated.

Although this post may well be one of the instances in which someone’s well-intentioned advice may not be useful or applicable to you (or to those who desperately cling to belief in a broken system) – here are 8 valuable insights from my time in the music business. I’m interested in your comments, so please share!

  1. If there’s any doubt about it, there’s no doubt about it. Do not do things you’re not sure you’re comfortable with, whether that’s a collaboration, a gig, an appearance, a reality show – whatever. Saves huge amounts of your energy, which is better spent creating art.
  2. Don’t be afraid to walk away. We are increasingly pressured by the status quo to accept mediocre offers. I’m not saying don’t accept them, ever, but realise when they’ve peaked, and if it’s causing you aggravation, don’t do it. Will you miss out on opportunity? Who knows. But will you add a bit of control to the chaos? Absolutely. It may not win you friends to walk away, but as my former booking agent said – “it’s not ‘show friends,’ it’s ‘showBUSINESS.'”
  3. Be present in your negotiations. Yeah, you’ve got art to make, and contracts are boring, sometimes awkward and often fraught with buzzwords or legal terminology, but you will save yourself strife by going into meetings understanding your obligations to any contract. Depending on what you’re negotiating, you may want to invest in representation (key if you’re signing to a major.) Do your homework and look for stories of bands who didn’t, if you need a cautionary tale. 
  4. Are you ‘Exposuring’ yourself as an easy target?  In any market, Exposure is important, and increasingly seductive in the entertainment industry (especially when you’re asked to work for an artist with 2 million followers), but you always need to ask yourself what do you gain from contributing? Is it just the chance to say that you’ve brushed shoulders with so-and-so, or is it an actual permanent recognition of your contribution? There is a difference, so keep in mind you need to be able to quantify the value of your efforts on a project. If there’s no credit, forget it.
  5. It’s less about ‘what do others say’ about working with them – observe how THEY talk about collaboration. We are a dramatic bunch, artists, so I’d say take tales of heinous treatment with a pinch of salt – but you can easily see who’s tight-fisted with appreciation; which artists will be grateful for your contributions; who will permanently credit your work or give you something tangible to actually tie you to their project …..and who will tweet a vague gratitude quote to be deleted later.
  6. SHOW ME THE MONEY. The whole idea that your money is in merch might be true if you’re Madonna, but assuming you’re not, it’s critical to ask two questions before a penny leaves your bank account. A) Why are you spending? If you’re only printing merch because you want to have a t-shirt with your band name on it, know it and own it – and remember that the majority of your merch will probably end up being bought by your friends and family, so factor that into your order – there’s nothing sadder than a big box of merch sitting in your basement. B) What return on investment are you getting from your spend? – whether it’s on merch, gear, recording, creating physical copies or hiring a music PR? You need to be able to at least estimate a monetary value to be gained in order to justify the spend, or you’re just throwing money down a well.
  7. Fair is Fair is Fair is Fair. I don’t get involved in any project without negotiating my cut. Know who else is getting splits and for what. You deserve more than 2%, unless you were genuinely in session for 8 minutes of the 18 writing hours – in which case, be grateful that you work with people who show you respect instead of straight up stealing your work. Typically, I don’t even consider beginning writing without a 50/50 split on masters and sync. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of working on a great track, but what’s the point if your effort is undervalued from the start? I have passed on great tracks because the splits were rubbish, and yes, sportsfans – you DO miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, butplaying the long game is about refining your strategy, in order to take the best shots – with the most accuracy.
  8. Know when to fold ’em. If the offer, the outcome or the splits don’t seem fair, consider walking – even if you’ve already put effort in. Red flags in negotiation will almost inevitably lead to at the very least, resentment, which will eat up your time and therefore diminish your own productivity (unless all your songs are about publishing splits). I have happily walked away from projects where I’ve negotiated the right splits, put in the hours – even spent two years in development – because it didn’t feel right, and the time I was dedicating to the project was preventing me from advancing with my own creative efforts, simply because the situation needed family counselling – which would have just drained me further. There is zero point in labouring through a toxic, soul-crushing project simply because you’ve ‘put the time in,’ because you’ll wind up hating your creation, even if it takes off.  




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s