Finding The Perfect Partner

Wouldn't it be great if we were all multi-talented? If we were able to perform all the jobs required by a CD release, including (but not limited to) writing the songs, creating the record, managing the manufacturing of the discs, writing publicity for the release, promoting the CD to press and radio, advertising, marketing, distribution, fulfillment of sales, accounting, tax preparation, contracts and on and on and on? There are individuals who are perfectly capable of handling all these assignments, albeit on a small scale, for their own releases. You don't necessarily have to know exactly how to do every job up front; part of the fun of a self-release may be learning as you go, making mistakes, adjusting your approach until you get it right.

But before assuming that you can do it just because some other musicians can pull it off, take some time to really assess your skills and your attitude towards the business end of a record release. Picture yourself beyond the musical aspects of the project. Once your record is finished, are you willing and able to do all the non-musical things that are required to get your music in front of the world? If you know any other musicians that are trying to "do it all", how are they faring? In retrospect, would any of them admit that they should have gotten help in the form of a partner?

This article is designed to help you choose the right person that will increase the odds your tiny record label will survive past the first release. It is intended for musicians who find the business end of the music industry either uninteresting at best, or completely intimidating at worst. The article is also directed at musicians who may have decided that self-release is not for them, simply because they don't possess the business knowledge, the financial resources, or both. If you find the right partner, you can start a tiny two-person label, instead of a tiny one-person label. The old saying about two heads are better than one may be dead-on accurate after all.

My opinion is that before undertaking any partnership, it's critical that you work out in advance exactly which areas each partner is responsible for managing and what tasks they will be performing. I will assume for the rest of the article that you, the reader, is the creative heart and soul of the project. You are the musician, the songwriter; perhaps you even have strong ideas about image and artwork for your release. Before you begin searching for a partner, it's time to decide exactly what you want this person to do, and almost as important, what you don't want them to do. Following is a sample list of responsibilities for a partnership between a musician and his "business partner":

Musician Business Partner
Songwriting, Song selection and Sequencing CD Duplication
Recording, Performance Advertising: When, Where, How Often
Production, Mixing Promotion and Publicity: Internet, Radio, Press
Image, Artwork Distribution
Order fulfillment Order fulfillment

Looking back at the various areas I've assigned to each partner, you can see a solid line dividing production of the release and promotion and sale of the release. There are certain jobs like order fulfillment (in direct mail, simply stuffing CDs in envelopes and shuffling down to the post office) that can and should be shared, especially if your release takes off and enjoys success. But for the most part, there is very little overlap of responsibilities. Now, when you begin searching for a partner, you can clearly state the role each person will play in your new record label. This will help you to weed out potential partners who are:

  • Expecting to play keyboards on the record
  • Interested in dabbling in music production or sound design
  • Hoping to be your "manager"
  • Prone to pushing your album in an unwanted creative direction
  • Closet songwriters

But remember, it works both ways; if you expect to be left alone in the studio until the master tape has been completed, you'd better let your partner handle their end without constant meddling and interference from you. I'm not suggesting that either of the partners should be so closed-minded that they won't consider ideas or constructive advice from the other partner. I am saying that you need to make sure each person has the final say in his or her area of responsibility. Ultimately, they have the right to completely reject your suggestions, and you need the strength to accept their decisions. Once you intimidate your business partner into advertising in a particular fanzine, they'll probably be inclined to insist you open the album with that ballad you can't stand--creating a chaotic situation.

Keep in mind, the ideal partner compliments you in every area--where you are weak, they are strong, and vice versa. You'll be focused on creating the product, and they'll be concentrating on pushing the product. Since, at first, these tasks are not done concurrently, there is plenty of opportunity for conflicts to arise simply because one partner might not be busy enough to keep out of the other partner's responsibilities. However, there is plenty of promotion and publicity that can be done prior to a record release, and there are always songs to write and record for the second album, once the first master tape has been completed. See, this is the primary benefit of this type of partnership--as the musician, you never need to stop creating and start selling; as the businessman, you're constantly looking for ways to enhance the name of the artist, to establish name recognition for the label, to obtain reviews and airplay, and to attract sales.

The World Is Not Perfect

As we all know, finding the ideal partner is probably an impossible task, but that should not stop you from looking for the person who best fits the profile of what you need in a partner in order to form a successful record label. You may have to make some compromises. It would be great to find a person who loves music (especially your music), but that is non-musical themselves. That may prove to be difficult. You might think a non-creative person would make the best business partner, and you'd be wrong. It takes a great deal of creative thought to crack the radio market, obtain press coverage and publicize your release to an uncaring public. But finding a person who can focus their creativity on just those areas who will also keep their hands off the mixing board may be a challenge as well.

I can't stress enough the importance of spending a great deal of time talking with potential partners about the roles each will play in the new record company. The best thing would be to write down, on paper, exactly what each partner will do--daily, weekly, monthly--and mutually agree to try to stick to those assignments, recognizing that it gives your label the best chance to survive, competing with the thousands of record labels out there in the music industry. This amounts to putting together an informal partnership agreement, something which would have kept a lot of promising (now dissolved) partnerships together, had they simply taken the time to do it. Don't be surprised if you have to compromise in a few areas in order to get a partner you can work with. Compared to the lack of control you'd encounter at a major record label, you'll still be way ahead of the game.

Financial Commitments

I know a lot of musicians who hope that they can find a person who will front 100% of the money for the new record label, do 50% of the work (which is 100% of the business end of the record label), and be satisfied with 50% of the profits. If you happen to find someone like this, don't even hesitate. Get a partnership agreement together and celebrate as if you had just won the lottery, because the odds are just as long you'll find an "angel" like that.

Most people entering a partnership, especially with creative people, want to make sure that both partners are entering the business with an approximately equal commitment, both financially and with their skills. If the commitments are unequal, either you won't have a partnership to begin with, or you'll have to come up with creative ways of dividing the potential financial gain in a fair manner. For example, if you found a business partner who could afford to put up 100% of the money and do 50% of the work, they might demand 75% of the profits, instead of just 50%. And that might be fine with you as well.

More than likely, someone with a head for business will want to know what you intend to put into the partnership besides your songs and ability. They will want to feel that you've got something more to lose, anticipating that will give you additional incentive to create better music. Your financial commitment may not necessarily have to be cash, however. If you own a home studio, you might consider your recording equipment, computer, etc. as potential partnership property. The value of your gear could be matched by your partner in cash, perhaps, and both partners would be contributing roughly the same value. This could backfire of course, if your record label goes out of business, and you're forced to sell your studio and split the money with your partner. My point is that you won't get something for nothing and partners like to be in business with individuals that have put cash or property "at risk", in order to demonstrate their commitment to the label.

As an artist, you're likely to believe your songs are the most valuable asset you can be contributing to the one-artist label, and you'd be right, yet until their value is determined by the music buyer's marketplace, it's not much to bargain with. The reason artists like Aerosmith and Bonnie Raitt are able to negotiate such favorable deals by changing record labels is that their proven success gives their future output (their songs) a value that a businessman can appreciate. After your first record is out, your songs will begin to obtain a tangible value that can be used when negotiating with a possible partner. Would you go into a partnership with an artist who was just starting out, or would you be more likely to hook up with someone who had already sold 1000 copies of his first CD? Proven sales, no matter how modest, are a great starting point for any businessman, because it takes away one of the great unknowns (will this artist sell any records?) and provides a target (1000 copies) to be beaten. This will provide the necessary challenge to your business partner, as they will believe that the combination of their skills with your talent will be the formula for success.

Choose Wisely

If you decide a partnership is the best method for you to get a record label started and to release your own records, then approach potential partners with a healthy amount of skepticism and an open mind. Get to the root of your needs and expectations for a partner and be sure you know what is motivating anyone who seems overeager to do business with you. And keep your eye on the checkbook!

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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