On the Northern Beat The Business of Music - Sept. 2017
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That was one of the gems my mother imparted to me, way... back when I was a teen. It stuck in my mind, partly because my mother never, ever swore, but also because it is a memorable folk saying. I don’t actually remember the context in which it was delivered, but I have always applied it as a put-down of others who, in my mind, may have had good intentions, but... I have recently, however, had to deal with the necessity of accepting personal responsibility for my own mistakes (unintended though they may have been) and have found that applying this folk wisdom to myself is a humbling experience. With that background, I would like to have a frank discussion of the band as a business. Many readers have no intention of forming a band, preferring to simply get together with friends to make and/or listen to bluegrass music. To those folks, I apologize for wasting space in your newsletter. But many others are in a band, or want to be in a band, or intend to be in a band. Today, you are my target audience. Pete Wernick literally “wrote the book” of business for bluegrass bands that covers way more than I have space for here. I highly recommend that you acquire a copy if you’re in a band, or intend to start one. Because band-as-a-business is way... different than playing music for fun. First of all, musicians always want to be the best that they can be. Hard work at long hours of practice to arrive at the level of professionalism necessary to be accomplished enough to play with others (without feeling embarrassed) leads one to believe that it’s all about the music. Nothing else matters. Well.... in a word, wrong. I mean, it certainly is necessary to be a good musician—and if you don’t achieve that, then nothing else is relevant. But being good musicians—necessary as that is—is not enough for a band. Because a band is a business. Isn’t that why you formed a band in the first place? You want to go out and share your talent with the rest of the world. Oh, and make some money in the process. And (dirty secret) revel in the accolades of your audience. I put a positive spin on all that by claiming that (1) playing music makes me feel good; (2) listening to that well-played music (not just me, but me in conjunction with my band-mates) makes listeners feel good; and (3) feeling that appreciation from an audience makes me feel good again: a three-fer! All of that is well and good, as far as it goes. But that’s a long way from being the full story, because a band is a business (am I getting repetitious here?). A business is supposed to be all about its customers, its clients. Not that difficult to do when your gig is a music venue or a music festival where, presumably, audience members share your preoccupation with the music. But you must also interact with the organizers, the promoters, the “money-men.” We have all heard horror stories about music promoters or venues that “stiffed” musicians. Me, personally, I’ve never had that experience, but I know that those situations exist, and I have heard from other musicians about their less-than-pleasant experiences. Moreover, I have had the experience of feeling that my hard work was not appreciated. I admonish you: do not let that suspicion become your default mind-set, because that can lead to problems that wouldn’t otherwise exist. And there are other gigs, say a corporate conference, where your music is more background to the “serious” conversations taking place amongst the folks who are networking (for business). Or at a wedding reception where the event is all about the bride and groom’s joyous event (a life-time memory not to be taken lightly), not your music. And, especially when alcohol is involved, but even without, there is ample opportunity for “misunderstandings” to occur. For all of these reasons, it’s good to employ another staple of the business world: the contract. Don’t get all upside my head about lawyers vs. a simple handshake. Yes, I believe in personal integrity and holding to one’s word, but... the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A contract is, and should be, viewed as nothing more than a formal declaration of the intentions of each signatory to the contract. It doesn’t have to be weighed down with lawyer-ese. I once attended a corporate meeting where the corporation’s attorney explained that unrest had arisen because the issue at hand had been “over-lawyered!” That’s one legal phrase I will never forget. Just establish a common-sense agreement that clearly defines who is responsible for what. Who is responsible for publicity? Are you required to “bring” a certain minimum number of paying people to the audience? Where and when do you transfer equipment from your vehicle to the venue? Following that, do you have to park in Timbuktu? Who provides the sound system (if you provide it, is there additional compensation for that)? Who runs the sound system? Are accessories needed (patch cords to plug in an MP3 player, for instance, or multi-outlet extension cords, duct tape... you get the idea)? Will event organizers want to use the band’s sound system? Is there a designated person dedicated to communications with the band? How and when will payment be handled? If the gig is a long way away, do you get additional compensation for driving, or flying? How about room and board? If it’s an outdoor venue, do you get paid if it gets rained (or snowed) out? A contract resolves all these issues ahead of time, so that misunderstandings do not occur at, or following, your performance. And I use the term “performance” pointedly, because despite all the other concerns your band is giving “a performance.” It really should be fun, not a matter of recriminations and blame. This is just one more example of hard-won experience as a result of being older than dirt. Please, use a contract so that you can have an enjoyable experience!