The six most common words we hear in an unsigned musician's vocabulary, are "Can you get me a deal?" On the other hand, George Michael said to Sony, "let me out of this deal!" In this column, Attorney Robert Rosenblatt offers valuable insight on how the "shopping a deal" concept looks from a lawyer's perspective. The result of this discussion will provide the aspiring musician a greater awareness of what kind of overall "package" they should be providing for the lawyer to most effectively represent their interests.
One of the ongoing themes of Solo Performer site will be to prepare the musician for a career in music, not just how to shop my tape for a "deal". In other words, "getting a deal" and building a career as a musician, songwriter or producer, are two different things. When it comes to lawyers representing a band, that professional relationship has a direct effect on how long a run this band may have, and perhaps more importantly, what comes after for the artist?
I want to offer some perspective of what a request for "shopping a deal" might look like from a lawyer's viewpoint. First of all, there are differences if this is a single artist or group situation, if for no other reason than there are less personalities to deal with. It is also more likely that the solo artist will have to hire side men, and rehearsals and gigs can become an expensive venture. As a result, solo artists sometimes have a better sense of economic realities.
The band, on the other hand, is a collaborative, in a perfect world, a partnership of equals, or perhaps "non-equals", depending on the internal realities of the band. Some bands draw up simple "partnership" agreements, which better enable them to define who gave what, who gets what, who stays and who goes, and what happens regarding any of the above. Partnership agreements may or not be immediately important to every group, but sooner or later they are. It would have been very important to Guns n' Roses, if you follow the stories about millions and ex-members. It is better have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
"Shopping a tape" has come to mean many things in a one-size-fits-all world. So while it is true that ultimately someone has to represent the fledgling recording artist, most groups think they are ready for a deal, when really they may not be nearly as ready as they believe themselves to be. This is not to say that they cannot or should not actively and passionately pursue a recording contract,... but the next step many fledgling groups may need more than a "deal" may instead be to apply themselves to the separate crafts of playing, writing, emulating and interpreting songs. In the end, it will be the "content" even more than the deal that is the ultimate determining factor in what kind of careers may be in the making.
"Getting a deal" seems like the best thing that can happen to a musical act. Yet for other artists who got record deals, maybe it was not the right time, and the artist found out that getting that particular deal was not such a great experience. The company did not understand their music, did not know how to market and promote the band, or some other situation which resulted in disharmony inside and outside the group. Two questions one might ask are, "could it have been different?", and "what happens now?" You have to think positive. I think that a group with a deal behind them, even if it did not work out, is in a better position to get on with career-building. We are no longer looking at the same neophyte musician, due to the experience of having been offered a contract, negotiating, signing, recording, touring and promoting. Experience is still the best teacher.
It is no secret that record companies are looking for the next thing, but they seldom can keep from chasing after the last thing. That's really not so good for a band that sounds like the current crop, unless the group is versatile enough to move on to the next sound. Witness the shift from metal bands to mainstream alternative. The challenge for the creative musician is to ride through and survive the shifts and trends. The key is adaptability and depth of musical talent. Even the careers of successful groups are expensive short runs,... even hit Broadway shows close after a while. So the best advice I could give to a creative musician is to go after building a "career" in music, and, Hootie & the Blowfish aside, remember that with your first "deal", you take your first step. Make sure you know how solid a step that will be.
How do groups get signed in the first place? A successful manager told me not long ago that if he did not know the "buzz" already, he was not interested. You might disagree, but his groups are filling arenas and selling records, so let's look at this scenario. How might this manager (who certainly could get that elusive record deal before most lawyers in town could) catch the "buzz" he is looking for? This goes back to our previous article, that some bands seem to get it together in spite of the adversity. What is that buzz? It means plenty of gigs, enthusiastic audiences, (usually) mailing lists, independent recordings going out to local and college radio. This act probably has some unique quality, at least let us hope they are not in the "clone" variety. Too often, the "clone" band gets a shot if they are lucky and persistent enough, and then they may be among the first to get cut from the label roster because they lacked the originality to follow up their "flavor of the moment" style. For the record company's business affairs and A&R departments, the "deal" is only a transaction that marks the beginning of the business-creative relationship. For the band, rightly or wrongly, the deal was everything. Sadly, most bands never recoup their advances and charges, and some never recover from the pressure and disappointment.
When I talk about a "package", I am not referring to biographies and pictures, although they are certainly part of the presentation. What is the "success team" involved with the creative musician? Is there a manager, or is there an interested attorney who acts as their representative and adviser? There has to be something more than just a tape and some bio material to constitute the total artist "package" which an attorney or manager can represent. Is there a manager? What kind of high visibility dates is the band playing? Is the act the house band at a solid venue that advertises and promotes the act? Is there a strong agent, radio station or local promoter behind the act. Is there a special writer in the group or working with the group to attract interest of a publisher or performance rights society (ASCAP/BMI/SESAC)? What kind of musical guidance does the act have? Is there a producer or songwriter working with the act?
Lightning can strike, and anyone can win the lottery with a winning ticket, and you might truly get lucky and get a "deal". But if you do not come well-armed with the right kind of "package", you would be wise to get professional guidance soon, and plan goals and sub-goals on the way to your deal. A recording contract, a tour, and a publishing deal - they are great rewards for a well planned career. You cannot plan everything, and things sometimes happen out of the blue. But a very smart woman I know wrote that "luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparation". So before you put the rest of your life on hold while someone "shops for your deal", especially someone you never really hired professionally, make sure that the next logical career step for you is a "deal", rather than some other goal, like becoming true professional musicians and songwriters. Perhaps you really need some professional coaching first with people who have the knowledge and experience to help you develop as a creative artist.
I recently met with some talented guys in a band who previously decided to hire a fine attorney to "shop their tapes" to some people he knew at record companies. The band paid the attorney a not insubstantial amount of money for this professional service. The band was told that while the companies thought the band had some promise, they did not have the "right songs". I think the band could have spent their money more wisely, because it was rather obvious that the material was not at the level it needed too be. That is what I mean about knowing what to "shop" and when. This band's hard earned money would be better spent getting effective musical coaching and looking for material to set them apart from the clutter of submitted tapes that record companies receive.
There are so many other options besides shopping for the "deal", none being more vital to the aspiring creative musician than first getting your act together. The deal will come to those who work for it and are committed to becoming true musical "journeymen". To those others, enjoy playing music, take it to the limit, to be sure, but don't quit your day job... yet.
Thanks for taking the time to visit. If you like this column,
please share it with a friend. Feel free to write with your questions
and comments for future articles to:
301 West 53rd Street
New York 10019
Telephone (212) 262-2112
or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 1997 Robert Rosenblatt