Dangers of the Music Industry (and how to avoid them)
Hunter S. Thompson said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench; a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side”
Maybe the adrenochrome fan (artistic license used) had visited New Zealand. Surely this wee island nation and other “faraway” locations aren’t susceptible to the pitfalls and prejudices of an international beast-of-a-thing like the music business. They are… because N.Z is part of it.
Most of the musicians reading this article would have experienced some of the challenges in the music industry, ranging from small frustrations to the ugly corruption of organizations and promoters circuits. With the risk of oversimplifying the output of a very complex and human topic, let’s look at some of the dangers in the music industry – all of which will exist in a town near you!
Buying Into The Media
The corrupt control of the media is more damaging than differing opinions on race, gender, sexuality or religion. The amount of persuasion held over these things by a few is both scary and sad; put yourself into that system as an aspiring entertainer with no business background and you had better buckle up!
If you have read my article Finding Happiness As a Musician you will remember that magazine covers can be bought. There are things called ‘rate cards’ (look into them) and advertorials – where musicians pay for an ad in the magazine in return for an article. Understandably the magazines operations need to survive financially, though this makes it extremely difficult for musicians on a low or even healthy independent income, when under the illusion that talent and hard work will see them through.
The other media-related area that can be bought, which has even more influence on popular perceptions is T.V time; News reports are often paid ads with an angle, hidden inside a story. With all this being said, the term ‘buying into the media’ has more than one connotation. It means that musicians often pay lots of money for an ad or radio promotion with no system of return for that money; or will waste money on an ineffective radio ad (buying in to the media).
Buying in to the media also alludes to the fact that styles are arguably more fabricated than the image of organic growth that is put out to the public consumers. It was a shock to me to discover that the hippie movement I grew up loving had strong ties to the C.I.A and Military Industrial Complex. Watch this video, based around the book Weird Scenes Inside Laurel Canyon by Dave McGowan; then decide for yourself whether all that is projected is what it seems.
On top of Jim Morrisons Father being a Navy Commander of a ship which operations encouraged the Vietnam War, and Frank Zappas father working at a chemical warfare centre, the list of artists who had family ties to the military is extensive. Though it was in an era where many “parents” were affected by war, there are many coincidences. See interesting comments by Raz Berry and Elijah James under the online video.
It is also interesting to think about where the link between music and certain substances originate. MDMA was around before the rave scene but not in the way it was… where did it originate. The same could be said for heroin in jazz… if you think it starts with the local dealer you are wrong. Armed soldiers don’t just fight for oil; they defend poppy fields in Afghanistan, too. Who owns the fields and who has the power to make these substances move on a global scale? Once you trace it far enough, it is easy to see the link between ownership of media influencing thought, and fabrication of pop culture movements.
On a basic level, we are sold lies and exaggerations all of the time: my favourite band Guns N’ Roses had applause from a music festival that they didn’t play at inserted on their first e.p, with a fake independent record label name given to the e.p also.
A Laurel Canyon band, the Byrds didn’t actually play on their first album (apart from one member, Roger McGuinn) so Milli Vanilli weren’t the first to fake it; and songwriting bootcamps exploit talented songwriters to provide songs for next to nothing for Major label artists, with the ‘stars’ singing songs written by up to 30 people, though the songwriter splits would never say so.
Most ‘big stars’ from Bob Dylan to Katy Perry have fake names and when you put their photos together the puppetry of the mainstream business becomes apparent.
Solution: As more restrictions infect the global marketplace in every area from small business insurance to any tax imaginable – it is getting next to impossible to find space amongst those with a corporate budget. Follow the money trail, and as Voltaire said, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize”. Music in the mainstream arguably resembles the monstrous plastic chain store brands we see in cities more and more. Fortunately there is as much great music being made now as there ever was… sometimes it just takes a shift in focus to see that.
You can make your living from music without being a puppet, but it does require you to keep learning your craft, especially as you reach a professional level. Don’t rely on television for an accurate portrayal of reality – get away from the screens and actually get amongst music in your local community. This is how real relationships form and opportunities arise. By educating yourself on the negative and the positive of the music industry, and remembering what really matters, you will have a healthier attitude than being either full of stars in your eyes or bitter and jaded.
Getting Let Down By Others
How one feels about their music career is very heavily swayed by their attitude; though it is little positives and negatives over time that can direct their outlook in the first place.
Getting let down by others happens because the music industry is a human industry (as far as I know). Sometimes others will actually let you down, sometimes it will be you that causes a negative shift in plans, and other times ‘getting let down’ occurs through miscommunication or something else coming up which genuinely needs more priority on their part. Following are some situations in which you will feel let down, and what you can about it:
People not saying things to your face
A seemingly small thing as this can have a snowball effect. It does sting to find out that someone has said something negative behind your back, but if it is causing concern do try and rationally analyse the situation before you address it. Does the other person have a valid point? Was it you that was wrong? Is what they have said worth discussing with them in order to see from both sides?
Try and see if there is a lesson in it first and then address as needed. A lack of healthy communication regarding annoyances is one of the most common things that breaks up groups, often with the annoyed person venting to everyone but the person who they should be talking with!
Solution: In a seminar a while back a student came up to me and let me know of the problems with another member in their band. They felt the person’s ego was a bit out of control and found it hard to communicate. It was causing tension and threatening the likelihood of the band carrying on. The first question I asked was “have you talked with them about it?” It turns out that the issue hadn’t been discussed or even mentioned.
From time to time there will be decisions you need to make that will feel a little difficult. It is certainly easier initially to ignore an issue when there is a risk of conflict, but doing so doesn’t help in the long run. Address issues immediately to avoid a ripple becoming a wave. In this situation, the student came back to me a week later and let me know that the person actually thanked them for mentioning it! They said that no one previously had the guts to say anything and they appreciated the honesty.
See, it might not work every single time, but it’s in the approach. If you come at someone with a hostile attitude out of nerves or defense, it won’t work; but if you are honest and show that you just want to get on and get things good for all involved, the air has a much better chance of being clear.
No-shows and Cancellations
It is always disappointing when people promise to turn up and then don’t. Volunteers will offer you their help then let you down. Friends will give you their word that they will come to a show that is important to you, then will leave you asking “Where is ____?”
Meetings that you were looking forward to will be cancelled with poor excuses, and band members might let you down. This all comes with being a musician. However, there are still positives to come from it all!
If you get no-shows as a music teacher, it is a perfect chance to write a cancellation policy – a practice in both confidence in being a business owner, and professionalism. With something such as band members not turning up it can be the hard push needed to find a more suited musician, or it might just be a case of opening up a conversation about the issue with said band member.
Having important meetings cancelled never gets enjoyable, but let it be a reminder that you shouldn’t depend on anybody. As I will say repeatedly in this article – it always comes back to YOU! How are you going to learn from the situation? You do, after the initial period of annoyance, have the power to react positively or negatively.
“For every failure there is the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit”
– Napoleon Hill
People Leaving A Band/Group
This one always hurts, too! Things are going well and then… bam! Your reliable guitarist quits because they need to try other things, or your drummer leaves because they are having a baby!
Regardless of the reason, it only takes one cog in the machine to go and then it feels as though you are back at square one. This is, like most tricky situations, a chance for growth…
Get together as a group and talk about why they left (if it is an issue) and learn from that. Even if it wasn’t a negative, look at what you will want in a new group member. It can mean that you have to adapt; if you are left without a band it means that you either sink or swim.
Develop your confidence as a solo artist, or shift to the next gear in finding what you need to do to play with good musicians again. Water the seeds for growth and positive change with action!
Your music and your ideas will get rejected. Read carefully now – there is no way that you can be a musician and not have some rejections. The following is an excerpt from my Musicians Values book, and is Musicians Value #3 Perseverance
Rejections will happen. A lot. Do not compare the highlights of another persons career to your low points – it will seem like they get everything and you get nothing. This is not the case. Everyone gets a ‘No’ at some point. You might have had many, even more than most. Continue to learn from them and make the next best move.
There are a lot of reasons why your music or proposed ideas might get rejected. It can hurt, but it pays to see from the other person’s point of view. Sometimes they are under instruction from someone else in the company who has said ‘No’ to your idea. Other times they genuinely just do not like your music. Understand that it is good to get some rejections to learn of what does not work, and to eventually align with people who are on the same page as you. Your work or art will get rejected by managers, publishers, A&R and Record Company Representatives, other musicians, the public, agents, promoters, festival directors, venue managers and more. It happens to every musician – some learn from the rejections and some stay bitter. Decide today how to take it.
Write down all of the music related rejections you have experienced in the past. Think of them all – from the small to the heartbreaking. Write down what you can learn from each rejection and how you can apply that life lesson in a positive way.
A big tip is to ask for feedback if you get your proposals rejected. Even though half of your replies might seem unfair and could even be a lot of B.S… at least half should be honest and allow you to reflect on the situation. This will at least give you others’ perspective and can help you to adjust if need be.
Giving Your Power To Others
Major Label Deals
When you sign a deal with a Major label (or should I say THE major label?) and you get an advance, you owe them that money back. The jaded musician highway is littered with countless musicians who owed the advance to the label, were promised the world, and then ended up in debt because the label didn’t push their record as promised. Even Brandon Boyd from Incubus is not immune to the scams, saying “we had to sue our label to get paid“
From DMX keeping things honest in The Industry, to Shirley Manson sharing her stories of witnessing greed in the industry, there are enough warnings out there now to not be enticed by the carrot on the string, but unfortunately the rented flash cars and hired diamonds still dazzle and hypnotize many young artists.
Solution: Don’t get me wrong, this is not all written to tell you not to sign with a Major, but simply to get you to THINK about these things. Hopefully that is enough to get you to do more research, and to keep learning as policies and general industry practices might change over the years. Have a look at the documentary above and other links in this article. You might also like to read some books on the music industry; start with All You Need To Know About The Music Business by Donald S. Passman, or How To Succeed In the Music Business by Allan Dunne & John Underwood.
Jealousy From Friends/Other Musicians
Criticism will not be avoided, and when it is constructive – criticism can be a good thing. When it is out of spite or jealousy however, it can really bring you down! It is so disappointing to have a friend be jealous, especially after you have worked for years to be able to have made that song or played to that crowd. Know that everyone experiences criticism – and the bigger you get commercially, the more criticism you will face. This is where staying with your truth in terms of your artistic expressions is vital. Sway from that and you’ll feel the criticism more because you might feel you did pose or fake it a little, or that you tried too much to be something you are not. Doing your best and expressing yourself with integrity and creativity will help you to brush off jealousy or bitterness.
The Feeling Of Waiting
Getting addicted to checking emails or social media is a form of giving your power to others. If you are calm and secure in yourself, you can have your day to be you, and work more on steps to move you forward. It’s funny how when things get a bit tough, procrastination happens and suddenly the dishes gets done! I mention this because being in a better state of mind will automatically help you in your musical journey and if we are desperate for others to make something happen for us, we won’t enjoy each day as much. A seemingly small thing like minimizing email-checking puts us in a better state of mind with more focus and energy. Check out my article on The Waiting: What to Do When Things Take Time here.
The list of ways you will get let down goes on and on; from bad business deals to dishonesty from those you trust, being dropped from a label through to acts pulling out of playing at your show without warning. The antidote to all of the above is to use ‘failing’ as a chance to learn. As I’ve mentioned earlier, ask yourself if you could do anything better should the situation rise up again, and more importantly are there ways to prevent it from happening (such as creating a policy, using a contract next time, or having meetings beforehand).
As John C. Maxwell says, “fail forward!”
Pay To Play
Payola (from Tools For Uncovering Happiness As A Musician)
With humans comes greed, and with greed comes major imbalance. One of the reasons you hear the same songs on radio over and over again is that Major record labels pay for advertising on the station so artists assigned with that label get priority, or A rotation. Although not directly Payola, it still makes it very hard for good independent music to be heard via commercial (and that’s the key word) stations that could do more to introduce creative new music to the world. Now, I’m sure there are some great exceptions out there and there is always a B side to the A side, but it runs deep with terrestrial radio. As with most things, online platforms are not immune to being led by the almighty dollar.
Turn the attitude around: It is easy to become bitter when discovering these things for yourself in the music industry, though use the roadblocks to turn and find another direction, or indeed another station/online network. This will grow your knowledge of what is out there rather than keeping tunnel-visioned on one or two stations/shows.
Buying On To Tours (from Dodgy Emails In The Music Industry)
I recently received an interesting email: An agent contacted me expressing interest in working with me. Sometimes bands might gain something from buying onto a tour… but 9 times out of 10, it’s a dead end. It could be okay for those in a corporate system but not for independents.
The email seemed a little more legit, and perhaps from the sender’s point of view it was. The sender had addressed me by my name in their introduction, and they mentioned that they were happy to provide testimonials of their legitimacy from other artists and clients. Here’s where it ended for me:
The agent said that there were no guarantees of ticket sales percentage or return, and actually informed me that they would be asking for £1800!
To some… this might sound okay. One gets to go on tour, play with artists they might have heard of or even admire. BUT… don’t forget that if this is you, you will have to pay for travel, your own accommodation, food etc. A question to ask would be do you get promoted, and if so – in what way?
*note: the email also seemed to be copied and pasted in different fonts from a generic email. Not always a sign of something dodgy but does make you wonder how much they are interested in working with you personally.
It could be fairly agued that the music business is just that – a business, and in business investments need to be made. I agree 100%, though what I don’t agree with is many artists going into debt in a deal in which they aren’t guaranteed any return, or given any clearly quantified marketing. Ideally, if a legit agent is interested in building your career, rather than seeing you go into debt yourself they will take 10% of an agreed fee which was paid to you for your performance. If you are a new artist and 10% of a performance payment is unrealistic for whatever reason, then they should look at securing you opening spots with one of their artists with a bigger following, in order to grow your business that way first – not let you get into debt to “give you exposure”, and then stop taking your calls after the tour. Because, if you aren’t making much to begin with, then you go into debt to go on a tour in which you have to pay all expenses, and then aren’t inclined to make anything back… where is the business building logic in that?
“If you are a new artist and 10% of a performance payment is unrealistic for whatever reason, then they should look at securing you opening spots with one of their artists with a bigger following – without you going into debt for it”
Free all of the time
One of the most important things to realise if you are trying to make your living from music, is that if you don’t charge anything – you will have no money to put back into making your products or touring or recording, etc. It’s the same with teaching music – if you charge a price that isn’t too low, it means that you will have more profit that you can use for maintenance in your business – buying good quality leads, strings, sheet music etc. It’s very hard to do that if you aren’t charging for what you do…
One simple step that you can start with so that you can see your music operate successfully is to work out your price points – how much does it cost to get your merch made, and what do you sell it for? Have those things written down, not just so you can use it at shows, but so you are aware of what you have left over to put back into your music without going into debt. You might be thinking bigger and looking into investors or borrowing money, but remember – borrowing large amounts of money always means you owe that back, and if you aren’t even aware of how much profit you are making – there’s slim chance that system will work for you.
Solution: Here’s an idea from Make Your Living From Music: 5 Key Points –
Make your price list today. Make sure that your price list is clear and readily available for when you need to use it. As with all of the other aspects of how you run your operations, creation is important but maintenance is of equal value. With this in mind, adjust prices and/or products on your list as changes are made.
Exhaustion and Burnout
Exhaustion and/or ‘burnout’ is a very real threat to the career enjoyment of many artists – and this could be said for self-managed artists and signed Major label artists alike. On a grass roots level, it is easy to get tired when you are trying to be your own promoter, booker, agent, publisher, manager, motivator, teacher, recording artist, financial organiser, sync agent and tour manager all at the same time. Delegating these roles brings with it its own stresses and then add the tasks of balancing a relationship and/or family to that and it is easy to see why so many musicians feel tired! Perhaps the most taxing thing for many is actually the desire to be successful itself and the disappointment in not meeting some high expectations that come with that.
Above all, listen to your ‘inner voice’ telling you if you need rest. If you a really are musician in your heart, then you probably want to be a musician for your whole life. There are more important things in this case, than just trying to ‘make it’ or ‘get exposure’. Being a musician is a process and a life-long pursuit; so the last thing you want to do is burnout and give-up. Despite the silly glorification: It’s not always better to burn out than to fade away, unless you judge your character and on whether you are a star or not.
Read my article on Rn’ R: Rest and Relaxation here, for helpful suggestions on limiting email-checking, having time to relax, and the benefits of saying “No thanks” sometimes. It is available to read under ‘Guitar Notes’ on the Guitar Association of New Zealand website.
In an interview with The Financial Times, Cliff Jones shares the words that were told to him directly from Elton John:
“Fame is an illusion, the Devil is in the detail, money buys freedom and misery in equal measure, and the music industry does not care about music. It cares about selling music; and that is an entirely different thing”.
How true when you think about it, though there are some alternatives to just becoming bitter after letting this sink in; I’ll get to that in a minute. First I ask that you trace the funding of mainstream artists and see for yourself if a large proportion ties in with political agendas. Remember also what was mentioned earlier in this article about rate cards. The illusion is bought.
From A&R people insisting “Let me know if I can help in any way” only to have you in their office to steal your ideas, through to movements made out to “empower” but which have actually been created for division. Underground musicians were doing more to empower minorities or those that were under-represented by taking action without trying to look like martyrs, and playing together in mixed race and gender groups without the need to ostracize anyone. Now that the media shoves racial tension and gender issues down everyones throats, it becomes like publicised road rage and catches on. There is the illusion of inclusivity with corporate catchphrases and hashtags, but in reality musicians who really love music don’t show prejudice anyway – they just see other musicians as ‘musicians’ regardless of the other stuff. They never fell for it.
There is a lot of smoke and mirrors in the music biz. The solution for us all then, surely must start with being true to ourselves and genuine in our good wishes and actions towards other musicians. We might not be able to fix all of the corruption, but we sure as hell can keep from adding to it.
Solution: Yes, articles in magazines and awards can be bought. The way forward is to accept this and either play the game a little, or focus and flourish with what can’t be bought out: creativity and truth.
Although it might seem harder, getting amongst music in the local community and enjoying it in the day for what it is, will lead to uncovering happiness – because that is what you love – music. When we are so desperate to become famous to validate ourselves, there will never be ‘enough’. We will win an award but then want another, we will make money but want more, and we will get famous but then get sad when the peak begins to fall. Take your time eating your food and enjoy it. Talk to those you love and tell them that you love them. Create, move and play. It’s the simple things. Keep learning and don’t become hypnotized by the glitter, by the illusion – because while you are staring at the sparkles, someone will be pulling your strings.
A side-note from my article Uncovering Happiness as A Musician: more involvement in using ones music will do more for the soul than spending hours and hours of life being drained by trying to get more views on social media. Sure, you can research PR strategies, branding, network marketing, delegation, joint ventures, piggy-backing on larger platforms and all of the latest trends in social media – but just remember where that happy place is for you. For most of us it is in playing music, not being stuck behind a screen trying to get more likes; too many musicians are putting all of their time into getting more likes and in the meantime have not played or created music at all anymore. Use social media as a tool but don’t fall for the illusion.
As mentioned in The #1 Thing Preventing Musicians From Progress, sometimes the biggest obstacles to growth are the internal contradictions felt and projected by musicians. They want money but they call another musician a sellout as soon as money is mentioned. They want to be unique but criticise others when they seem to be ‘weird’ for their uniqueness. The untwisting of those internal contradictions is one of the most beneficial things you can sort in order to enjoy your career. Align your actions with the things that are truly important to you and you will start to make progress. Releasing the brakes – the mental baggage – will loosen that feeling of drag.
Solution: What are 5 things that you could throw out or 5 things that you can stop doing, in order to give you more energy for what matters? I call it ‘releasing the brakes’. You might have your foot on the accelerator in terms of being productive and moving forward with your music/projects – but it’s hard to move forward with baggage. It is hard to move forward with your foot on the brakes. Release the brakes and get rid of the negative things holding you back today. List those 5 things you need to get rid of or stop doing, now.
You know what feels strange? Walking along the road and having people stare at you. It could be argued that when one is famous that’s their problem because they wanted it; but there’s not much to prepare someone for fame, especially if it hits suddenly. People forget that people are still just that – human; and when one has worked hard for success and then gets negative judgement for no good reason from people they don’t know – it isn’t what they expected.
Along with amplified unfair prejudice, there is also just the strange sensation of getting stared at. This can be especially unsettling for local musicians who don’t sign a contract or have numerous television appearances coming up, but get known without realising it fully. Achieving commercial success does not automatically turn an introvert into an extrovert, or magically cure social awkwardness. For many creative people becoming more known publicly is not a comfortable feeling, but quitting does not feel like an option either because they grew up with the dream of being a famous musician like their heroes. It’s almost like a very self-defeating catch 22.
The other side of the ‘success-isn’t-all-it’s-made-out-to-be’ coin is the feeling of groundlessness once success, or at least an aspect of commercial success, is achieved. Feelings of “I have money now but my problems are still there” or “I have won that award and had that hit – but now what” are a shaky reality for artists who have ‘done well’. So what does one do, then, when achieving that dream hasn’t made them happy?
Whether you are a plumber, musician, ballet dancer, or teacher of mathematics; the same remains to be said: we all must endeavour to adapt to change well. Change will come: with the peak there is the downhill slope, so again – enjoying the whole as a process rather than a destination will help to unveil beauty on the other side of the mountain. This is hard to do when you only love yourself if you are the biggest artist in the world, or value your music by the amount of views you have on social media.
Success means different things to different people, and will mean different things to you at different stages of your life. Earl Nightingale had one perspective worth contemplating, when he said: “Success is the progressive realisation of a worthy ideal”.
Are your actions setting you up to live in the process of a worthy ideal, or are you putting energy towards something hollow and able to be bought?
“Keep learning and don’t become hypnotized by the glitter, by the illusion – because while you are staring at the sparkles, someone will be pulling your strings. “
Gangsters and Murder
In his interview with the Breakfast club, Lyor Cohen (41:48) talked about having his gun off safety, saying “When I go into a club my guns off safety… if I want the act I go home with the act. All the other labels aren’t even allowed a carry a gun” and continuing with the notion of.. they (other labels) didn’t even carry a gun or a pistol.
Most will see this as a metaphor for playing it safe, but believe me if you think there isn’t guns and gangs on the scene when millions of dollars are involved then think again. Of course I’m not saying that he meant it literally, but there are sharks where there is money. At the “Top” (for want of a much better word) of the industry there are political ties, and financiers with invested and possibly skewed interests in funding the artists. There comes a time when Major artists, who have been supporting a lot of people with the money they generate, might decide to quit and end the treadmill. This, as Chaka Khan found out, means that they will be worth more dead than alive. There is also the issue of exposing secrets. How many artists have been found hanging from a doorknob?
When you do something and expect a reaction, it’s not what happens that affects your initial feeling – it’s the difference between what happened and your expectation for what was to happen.
For all artists in the music industry, behind the image that gets put out by P.R, there are many ups and downs. Reality is often different than your expectations so if you can adapt and grow with those changes you will have a better chance of enjoying the ride.
Understand that challenges do not stop, and the dangers don’t completely go away because life does not stop until you are dead. It is wise to take action so your skills get better rather than wishing it were easier. Progress doesn’t become easy on an instrument – what becomes easy is the things that you have persevered with and put action to time and time again. The same can be said for working inside the music industry. Of course, there are always exceptions but that is where the skill of adaptability comes in; both mentally and physically…
In an age where the Internet has raised awareness of the dangers and pitfalls of celebrity culture and our industry more than ever, it can be easy to feel downhearted as the dark side of the moon is unveiled. Compounding stress in dealing with feeling like “it’s so cliquey” in your local/national music industry can add to this, or it can be a reminder that you need to move or approach things in a different way. It is a human industry so it’s not perfect, but it also isn’t only run from money and mainstream. Shift focus. When you start eating healthy, the bad food doesn’t make you feel sick because you aren’t consuming it. What are you doing to come back to what matters in your life and live your truth in music?
One of the best starts to see progress if you are feeling some of the stresses and issues mentioned in this article is to act on the solutions provided above for you. This is where the difference lies – many read but not nearly as many actually make the necessary changes and take action. Focus on what matters and make those changes. You might have done a lot before but it is conditioning – it takes repetition and continues throughout the years.
How do we avoid the dangers in the music industry? We don’t. We learn from them.
Keep on learning, and remember what matters.
You are not a puppet, and there is nothing to fear.