10 'Reality Sandwiches' For The Independent Musician

The term 'Reality Sandwiches' appeared in a poem by the late Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. I adopted it years ago to explain that there are certain realities about the music business that must be chewed and digested in order to rid ourselves of any naive concepts and beliefs about breaking into the industry. With this in mind, the following observations should be taken as wake-up-calls about establishing your career.

1. Make Music That Doesn't Suck!

We live in a time when everybody and their sister can and does make their own music. That doesn't mean however that your music has what it takes for record labels to invest their money and time developing, promoting, and marketing that music. A&R Reps are always saying, when asked what they are looking for, "We don't know what we are looking for, but we'll recognize it when we hear it." What we can read into this comment is that your music must truly stand out in some significant, original, dynamic, and creative way.

95% of the independent music out there contains regurgitated ideas that were ripped off from some other, more gifted musicians. Don't copy! Borrow yes, but copy no. Challenge yourself. What is it about your music that makes it stand out from all the rest? From songwriting to musicianship, music intended for the marketplace must be performed and recorded capably. Music that sucks is music that does not grab your listener. Music that sucks is music that takes only 10 seconds to dismiss because the production quality, or the vocals, or the lyrics are pedestrian at best, or mediocre for the most part. Music that sucks is music that sounds like you've heard it all before.

If you don't think a lot of the music coming out today sucks, drop by your local college radio station and ask them to let you listen to some of the hundreds of new CDs they get in the mail every week. You won't even be able to listen for more than 20 minutes to most of the independent releases that flood the market today.

Make music that doesn't suck and you will be making music that makes the listener's hair stand on end, or gets their feet moving uncontrollably, or singing your songs in the shower because they can't get it out of their heads. Music that doesn't suck is music that packs people into clubs, and gets people so excited that they are willing to spend their hard earned money to buy it. So, what does non-sucking music sound like? It sounds like all the varied records that are selling at live shows around the country, and it sounds like what the people are talking about to their friends. It sounds like all the great music you bought for your collection.

2. Play Live Often and Don't Worry About Getting Paid For Every Gig.

You can always tell the difference between a musician who is in it for the money, and a musician who is in it for the music. The dedicated musician can't not play music every chance they get. Money-focused musicians whine about the fact that they can't get club gigs that pay anything. If you really think that you can make your living solely as a musician in the first three to four years of your career, you are headed for a breakdown and disappointment. Think about it...almost every legendary, gifted musician who has made a mark on our culture has been a musician who struggled long and hard at their craft, and never gave up.

Eat determination for breakfast! Go out there and play on the streets if you have to, play at schools, fairs, festivals, do benefits to help other people and organizations. Offer your services to non- profits, charities, church groups, and any other companies or organizations you can think of. Hang out at clubs, look for jamming possibilities, or start your own jam sessions. Look around your city or town, and you will see many places and venues where musicians can play. As you establish yourself and more and more people show up at your shows, the paid gigs will increase. Remember... play live, and then after you play live, play live again, that's what musicians are supposed to do.

3. Be a master musician on your instrument.

One of the curious developments of the late 70's was the huge increase in garage bands, punk bands, and 'do-it yourselfers', who just picked up an instrument, or started to sing with some friends, and 6 months later recorded a record and began to play live. Some great music, and new directions in music, came out of that situation. But now, 20 odd years later, the novelty of hearing amateurish thrashings has gotten a bit dull. Prior to the late 70's, more often than not, the music that is our heritage was made by musicians who, from the time they took up their instrument, worshipped at the feet of some master rock n' roller, bluesman, jazz player, folk legend, songwriter, or whatever. The habit of these inspired musicians was an appetite for perfection. A need to be not just good enough but GREAT.

Why settle for less? Whatever developing stage you are at, go beyond it, re-commit yourself to your instrument or voice. Take lessons, or better yet, sit yourself down at your CD player and choose a favorite guitar player's record, and listen closely to what they are playing. then re-play it, and re-play it again. Challenge yourself to go beyond your limitations. Who knows, maybe you will fall into some new territory, wherein you will find yourself, your 'sound', and increase your chance to stand out from all the mediocrity that is your competition.

Believe it or not, record labels love to hear innovative, accessible new sounds. Actually in their heart of hearts, that is what they are really hoping to hear on every new demo tape, and from every new act they go see at a live venue. You see...in the business of music when we hear something new, original, and accessible, we can invest in you with some sense of security. We believe that if we put our 'label brand' on you, and add our talents of promotion and marketing to the mix, then we 'have something', and your music becomes our music, and we can work together to broaden you audience appeal. It's like a partnership ...something about 'Art and Commerce'...they can work together, you know. Be a professional, because a professional only lets the best come out of themselves.

4. Protect Your Investment... Copyright your songs.

I never cease to be amazed how few artists are willing to spend $30 to copyright their songs. By the way, these folks are often the same folks who complain about not getting paid to perform their unknown music. All I know is that when an inventor comes up with some new product that they think will appeal to a certain type of customer, the first thing they do is file for a patent on their invention. The same reaction to protecting songs should be there for any serious songwriter.

If you really intend to work hard and develop your career as a musician who writes your own songs, don't wait too long to take care of this simple, but essential task. If you really believe in your unique and original music then take the time to learn the basics of copyright protection. From the Internet to the library, there a number of easy ways to learn what it takes to file for copyright protection. Do it now!

5. Design simple, but effective promo materials.

The topic of designing and writing effective promotional materials; bios, fact sheets, cover letters, quote sheets etc. is a lengthy one to say the least. Here are three tips to help you promote your careers, and enhance your chances of getting some deal offers. Do the following:

  • Take the time to inventory any accomplishments, positive reviews, training and awards, past sales, and live appearances, and organize them into bios and fact sheets.
  • Make your promo materials as compelling, and informative as possible. If you can't write, hire a professional publicist.
  • Having done that, take more time to research who to send the materials to, and to ask each potential recipient what type of information they would like to have sent to them. No 'generic' kits should ever be sent out to any gatekeepers in the music business.

6. Know The Labels and Publishers You Hope To Be Signed To.

If you were applying for a job with a certain company of corporation, wouldn't you take some time to ask questions about their stability as a business, their reputation in the industry, and the executive's background and experience? The same is true when shopping for a record or publishing deal. Some musicians get so excited when a certain label or publisher approaches them with a contract offer. Being approached for a deal is a compliment and is a recognition that a musician's music is attractive to them.
But, to rush ahead without taking the time to learn a few things about those companies is foolish indeed.

Ask some questions:

  • How have they done with your particular genre of music?
  • What specific kinds of deals are available?
  • Who runs the label or publishing company?
  • What is their reputation in the music business?
  • What are their ideas for promoting your music?
  • How do you like them as people?

These and other questions can be crucial in making an unemotional decision about an arrangement that could make or break your career.

7. Have Your Own 'Entertainment Law Attorney' To Represent You.

The business of getting signed to any deal in the music business has always had, has now, and will always have, the involvement of entertainment law attorneys. No jokes will be inserted here, because any relationship between a musician, a record label, a publisher, a merchandiser etc. will come down to two attorneys hashing out the contract for the musician and the respective companies.

When all is said in done with the 'courting' process, the musician is never present during the actual negotiations. The musicians attorney and the music company's attorney meet, talk over the phone, and fax their offers and counter-offers amongst themselves. This fact serves to remind you that choosing a reputable, ethical, well respected attorney with lots of deal-making experience within the music industry is an absolute necessity for any serious musician who wishes to fight the good fight in the legal arena. You may not need an attorney right now, but you should find out what lawyers are available to you in your area. The Yellow Pages of Rock, or the Recording Industry Sourcebook are a good place to start your research.

8. Choose A Well Connected and Respected Personal Manager.

Self management is always a valid option in the developing stages of establishing your career as a musician. Much can be learned by taking on the jobs of securing gigs, getting some publicity, planning tours, dealing with personal issues that arise within the band, and schmoozing with A&R Reps and various other label and publishing personnel. However there comes a time, usually when the daily tasks of doing the business of being a band takes up too much time, and it is then that the services of a good manager can be very useful. I have always felt that if any musician or band has worked hard to establish their career, and achieved a modicum of success, they will have a better chance to 'attract' the services of a professional, well-connected and respected manager.

Managers who do this job for a living can only take on clients that generate income. Making money as a personal manager is no easy task, and many upcoming artists forget that if any moneys are to be generated from their music, it can takes years for the flow of that income to be reliably there. So, as a band develops self-management, or gets help from intern/student manager-wannabees, can help pave the road for professional management.

Over the years I have heard several horror stories about 'managers' that approach upcoming acts and say that for X amount of dollars, they can do such and such for the artist. No! This is not the way legit personal managers work. Personal managers get paid a negotiated fee (20%-25%) for their services (get it in writing) for any and all business transactions they are responsible for over a particular contract period. No musicians should ever pay a fee to a so-called 'manager' who will not do any work UNLESS they are paid upfront. Flim-Flam men and women still abound in this business... be forewarned.

One of the most important jobs of a manager is to secure recording and publishing contracts for their clients, this is why it is so essential to choose well connected and well respected managers. The music business is a 'relationship' business. Who know who, and who can get to know who, and who did what successfully for who, is what this management game is all about. Choose carefully those people who will be representing you in any business dealings.

9. Don't Take Advice From Anyone Unless You Know That They Know What They Are Talking About.

The best advice I have gotten in the music business came from people who talked the talk, and walked the walk. The second best advice I received was from the experiences I gained from building my own career; learning from my interactions with the gatekeepers at labels, the media, management, and booking companies as to what was right or wrong for me.

You can tell when you are talking with someone in the music industry whether or not they are full of shit. Look them in the eye. Listen to how they talk. Just buy yourself a high quality bullshit detector and make sure you keep the batteries charged. Trust your intuition. If it 'goes off', listen to the inner voice that is detecting deceit or deception. Most of the time your instincts will be right about the advice you seek.

If you feel that the source you have contacted knows what they are talking about, and has had first hand experience doing what you want to learn about, that is the only advice that might stand up over time.

10. Musician... Educate Thyself! If you want a record deal, learn what a record deal is, and learn something about the business of music.

The ignorant, mis-informed musician is a menace to themselves. Enough already! Over the decades there have been countless stories of musicians who were ripped off by their record labels and music publishing companies. Why? Exploitation was the name of the game for a long time. Keeping musicians in the dark was standard business practice. However, the past has passed, and today, any musician who signs a record contract, and learns later what he or she signed, has only themselves to blame.

There are dozens of outstanding books available on every conceivable topic related to the business of music. They can be found in bookstores, libraries, and through the Internet. In addition, there are many schools that now offer 2- 4 year programs on the business of music. Seminars, and workshops are available on a year round basis in most major American cities. Consultants, Attorneys, and Business Organizations are all around and so it is only myth, superstition, stubbornness, and immaturity that stand in the way of any musician making a commitment to educating themselves about the business that exists to exploit their music.

When people said to you " Spend money on quality instruments and equipment"... you did that. When they said "Spend time and money on practicing and rehearsing", you did that, for the most part . (see comment #1). When they told you "Spend time and money finding the best recording studio, producer and engineer you can"... you also did that. Well, nobody until now has told you "Spend time and money learning all you can about the business of music". But I just did! So... do it!

It has been said (about education) that we don't know anything until someone tells us. If that is true, the fault in 'not telling' musicians that they must spend some time and money on educating themselves on music business issues is the fault of the businessmen and women who kept their clients uninformed. (Ignorance IS bliss as far as the old guard of music executives are concerned). But, knowledge is bliss should be the byword for the musician of the new millennium. Please...spend some time and money educating yourselves about the music business. A few dollars and hours spent now can protect your future forever.

Throughout his fprty year career in the music business, FourFront Media & Music's Christopher Knab has shared his experience at many industry conventions and conferences, including the New Music Seminar and the Northwest Area Music Business Conference.

Knab was owner of a San Francisco music store, co-owner of the 415 Records label, and station manager at KCMU Radio in Seattle.

He currently provides a unique consultation and education service for independent musicians and record labels. His new book is entitled "Music Is Your Business".

Christopher Knab