The purpose of this column is to provide career guidance from the perspective of an entertainment lawyer. The information presented here is not intended to be legal advice nor an overview of how to write, negotiate or interpret contracts. Rather, each article addresses issues like business relationships, considerations when seeking legal advice, and in general, a "backstage" informal dialogue about the realities confronted in pursuing a career in today's music business.
If any of you know people working for labels affiliated with the six major record distributors or for record retailers, you are probably already aware of the present state of things in the music business. The fact is that business is flat, business is down in the flattest cycle in years. Companies are having a hard time breaking new acts, and few newly signed acts have true "staying" power. Groups are being cut from rosters, large numbers of employees are being downsized from companies, and even labels are being eliminated from major distributors' organizational charts. Record retailer chains are on the verge of bankruptcy, and for example, one better known chain's common stock is down to "penny stock" category. What does this have to do with you getting a record deal? To some of you, it might mean everything, because the high growth rates of the past are over, say many.
The last time I looked, more than 99.9% of all unsigned acts in the U.S. want to be signed more than anything else, even more than developing their career (creative) skills. In some strange way, music business problems might be your opportunity, since there is so much turnover of signed acts, perhaps you can replace one of the many acts being cut. However, labels are not known for their kindness or patience to develop newly signed that do not demonstrate the ability to sell records, generally resulting from radio play and MTV programming.
An recent New York Times article about a trendy pop-culture fashion shows had some dismissing, unkind comments about the music that was being played at the fashion show. The writer commented that the music (by an otherwise successful production team) was wrong for the show, and referred to the music being used as "non-recyclable." Whatever you may think about the trendy music played at the fashion event, the word "non-recyclable" provides a useful shorthand description to address the question asked above, IE. What does the state of the business have to do with you? For some of you, perhaps not much, and to others of you, quite a lot. You have to listen and pay attention to what goes on around you. Unfortunately, not enough musicians do.
What does this "non-recyclable" jargon mean? What is "recyclable" music, anyway, and why is it relevant? One of the major phenomena that has emerged the past number of years in the record business is the concept of "disposable" groups, "disposable" music. On of the major characteristics about "disposable" groups is that they do not play recyclable music. That is usually the reason they become disposable in the first place - they play disposable music - they are non-recyclable. Which kind are you? Quoting from a previous article, "do you have a realistic plan for your music career?" In the real estate business, the words were location location location, in politics, it was "it's the economy, stupid," and in music, you ought to consider repertoire repertoire repertoire - because if you haven't got any songs, and you insist on not looking for strong material, you've got nothing to play that is going to advance your career. Even if you get lucky, you become the next "one hit" Wonders, from Tom Hanks fame. What do you do for an encore?
So let me ask you once again, "which one are you? Which one do you want to be? Are you disposable? Are your songs disposable? Non-recyclable? Or are you working on a plan, to make a difference, in a flat music business, to bring something new and fresh to the party. I mean really different. Too often these days, when a new group comes along convinced they are different, telling everyone they want a record deal, they deserve a record deal, they even get a few people believing them. However, like Bela Lugosi's night stalking character, they can't seem to handle the light of day. They are not different, they are just like all the rest, trying to be Stone Temple Pilots, trying to be Metallica, trying to be Pearl Jam, all good bands to be sure. But playing music which is derivative of derivative music, which is derivative of "rootless" music will put you at the top of list of the disposable bands who play non-recyclable music.
Remember, not even the most well connected lawyer can do much with music that cannot sell itself. If the music is not there, accept that reality, and work even harder to reach your goal. If you know what you have to do, you have a better chance of getting where you want to be. There are thousands of acts like yours chasing after a few opportunities. Make sure the odds are working in your favor, and get some good advice. Become great.
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© Copyright 1997 Robert Rosenblatt