by Marty Dodson
May 15, 2017
I started playing guitar when I was 18 years old and instantly fell in love. For a few short spring and summer months I enjoyed the pure bliss of trying to fold and stretch my clumsy fingers into chord shapes and building calluses where none had ever been. I found I had a natural instinct to make up songs rather than learn Eric Clapton licks. I started paying attention to the liner notes of my favorite albums and memorized the names of the writers who’d somehow plucked my favorite songs from their own experience and imagination.
In my first semester of college I met a lead player and a drummer who happened to live on my dorm floor. We started jamming together. It was the most fun I’d ever had.
Then it happened. Someone, I can’t remember which one of us, uttered seven life changing words: “Why don’t we get a gig somewhere?”
I didn’t realize it at the time but my new, 100% fun hobby had just become a commercial enterprise.
After a couple thousand gigs, law school and some twenty-five years in “the business” wearing various hats I have become very comfortable with the fact that a song is, on one hand, a work of art and, on the other, a unit of intellectual property. Songs are widgets. People are products. Guitars are work tools. Fans are income streams. And so on.
Having made a few mistakes along the way, I know firsthand how the business side can suck the fun right out of the music. I also know firsthand that the great majority of fun-sucking mistakes can be avoided.
Here are some practical tips.
When doing business, seek the counsel of experts. This is true in any field but especially so in ours.
Though I am an attorney, I hired an attorney to negotiate my own publishing agreement (How could I hope to be objective?). I also called writers who’d been with the company to give me the inside skinny on day to day life there. I also called friends in publishing to get their professional impression of the company and its standing in the music community. Everything checked out and I had a wonderful experience working alongside great people like Marty Dodson.
However, I was only able to accept that good offer because I turned down two other offers that did not check out. Which brings me to my next point.
Be Willing to Say “No”
This part is hard. You have dreams. You want them to come true so bad it literally hurts sometimes. Then someone says they believe in you and the music you’re making. Maybe this person or company has a track record of success. They make an offer…every part of you is dying to say “yes” as loudly as possible.
Stop. Take a breath. Slow down.
Think about what you want. What you really want. Is this it? Does the opportunity represent a logical step toward what you want? Is the offer completely one-sided or does it require something of the person making the offer? How recent is the track record?
The offer may be right for someone, but is it right for you? For instance, if a writer’s heart’s desire is a full blown, traditional staff-writing deal, I often counsel them against signing single song agreements. There’s nothing wrong with a single song agreement, but if you want a full-blown deal it can be harmful in the long term to allow a series of publishers to cherry-pick your best works.
No deal is the last deal. No opportunity is the only one. I promise.
Though it is difficult, for the sake of saying “yes” to the offer you actually want tomorrow, you may need to say “no” to the offer of today.
Work with Good People
Now let’s assume you like what’s being offered. It makes sense for you. The bullet-point, hand-shake terms are fantastic. This promises to take you right where you want to be. Do you trust the actual human being(s) behind the offer?
Have you checked around? What does your gut tell you? Are you doing mental gymnastics to ignore obvious character flaws, poor judgment or sloppy business practices?
If it feels scammy, it probably is and the chance is not worth taking. Scams and unfulfilled promises are the two biggest fun-suckers in our business.
Hopefully you’ll share my good fortune and fall in with quality people throughout your career, but as I mentioned above, solid counsel from a variety of experts coupled with a personal willingness to turn down the wrong opportunities go a long way toward that end.
Be a Lifelong Student
G.I. Joe was right: Knowing is half the battle. You probably know what types of wood your guitar is made of. You have a definite opinion about what thickness of pick you like. You’ve likely spent a great deal of time studying the mechanics of songwriting. Get to know the business side a little. In my opinion it’s actually kind of fun.
Don’t just join BMI, ASCAP or SESAC; find out what they do and how they do it. Understand the basic types of royalty streams (performance, mechanical and synchronization) and how they are created. Google articles on developments in the entertainment industry. Learning the terminology, prevailing practices and current trends of the music business may feel clumsy at first; I know it did for me. But, then again, so did learning to play guitar; now it’s second nature.
I still feel that initial sense of joy and wonder when I sit down in a quiet space and attempt to pluck something meaningful from my own experience and imagination. Protect that part of yourself through a commitment to making sound decisions and learning a little more every day. It is well worth the trouble.
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