10 commandments for musicians
In the changing musical landscape, it can be easy for even talented musicians to get lost. Here are 10 navigational rules.
By no means am I the Moses of the music industry, purveyor of divine knowledge from the gods. I do not claim to sit on Mount Sinai, inscribing these commandments in stone. I haven’t parted the FM Red Sea, nor have I conversed with any burning bushes or burning amplifiers. But I have spent the past few years reporting on Reno’s music scene.
And I’ve learned there is a whole fucking lot of talent in this city!
Yet few bands here have really “made it big.” Why? Because talented bands only become successful when they have strong business plans.
For the sake of this article, let us assume you are a musician of considerable talent.
While some of the advice here is based on my observations of the music industry, most of it is from seasoned professionals—advice I’ve asked from rap stars like Shock G of Digital Underground and Slick Rick, local show promoters, indie label owners and local musicians who have already started to establish themselves outside of Reno.
But genres don’t really matter here. Whether you’re one of Reno’s up-and-coming rappers, a drummer in a hardcore band or somewhere in between, the following 10 commandments, followed faithfully, will help you take your musical career to the next level.
1. Thou shalt record properly. “If you can’t get a decent quality recording going of some sort, then it’s not worth putting anything out there,” says local promoter and musician Brandon Desiro. “First impressions are one-shot deals.”
There are plenty of professional recording studios in town. The best might be Tom Gordon’s Inspired Amateur Productions. Gordon has recorded musicians of all genres, from local artists to Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic 2001.
If you use home recording software like Pro Tools or Garage Band, then make sure you have good microphones and a solid grasp of how to use the recording program—or find someone knowledgeable and ask them to help you record.
2 .Thou shalt polish thy live show to perfection. “People aren’t paying their five bucks for your company,” says Desiro.
3. Thou shalt not promote thy band solely on Myspace. Promote your show solely on Myspace, and your bandmates will be the only people there.
4. Thou shalt know thy legal rights as a musician and thou shalt have thy contracts reviewed by a lawyer. Blindly trusting a manager or lawyer to handle all your business affairs is one of the most naive things a musician can do.
“If you’re going to have a lawyer or a manager, then you need to know exactly what they’re being paid for,” says Sirah One, a 21-year-old female rapper from Los Angeles who recently finished up a stint on Warped Tour and has received a lot of national attention. Sirah says she went to the library and spent hours reading every chapter on artist rights in every law book she could find.
This rule is especially strong if you ever sign to a major label.
“My first album went platinum,” Slick Rick told me a few months ago. “That’s a million records at $14 each—I never saw a dime of that.”
Read the contracts. Know the laws. Have a good lawyer.
Along those same lines, check the production credit for any song you work on. Shock G of Digital Underground, the man responsible for discovering Tupac, told me that not always doing this was one of his biggest regrets in his 20-year career. “The money comes and goes,” Shock G said. “But the credit is for infinity.”
Also, Shock G says, save the master copies of everything you record.
As for copyrighting your work, local musician and indie label owner Clint Neuerburg recommends: “Generally, bands can sign with one of three publishing companies that deal exclusively with music [ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.] These companies ensure that you get paid every time someone uses your music, and also gives the band legal leverage over questions of ownership. However, by releasing a physical copy of the material, you have essentially made a document that proves you wrote and recorded the material in question before anyone else. If bands want to go the safest route, then they can also send their material to the Library of Congress to have it legitimately copyrighted. The Library of Congress is the only body in the U.S. that can copyright material.”
5. Thou shalt establish a strong local following before playing in other cities. This will tie in with commandment seven. If you can’t draw a crowd here, how are you going to do it somewhere else?
>6. Thou shalt be wary of networking with shady people.
7. Thou shalt network with other bands while touring. “Show trades. Show trades. Show trades!” says Desiro. “There is only one way for an independent band with no support to establish themselves. Hardcore kids do it better than anyone I’ve seen. You need to first get yourself going in Reno. That way, when a band from Portland or wherever wants to come through, you can set them up with a good show where they’ll earn some fans. Then, when you go to Portland, that band will return the favor.”
8. Thou shalt seek as much press as possible. I’m talking national press here. Sirah hand-made and distributed 300 press packets, but now URB Magazine, National Public Radio, and a slew of other media outlets are interviewing her. Semi-local rap group Canto I (born of Las Vegas; studying at the University of Nevada, Reno) has also managed to gain a lot of national press. Their advice, via email:
“We honestly emailed and sent albums to everyone who we thought was a credible source or review publication. However, it’s still all about making a quality, presentable product. Review publications have thousands of requests, and they only choose the ones that are worth the listen according to image, background, history, buzz, professionalism … The hardest thing to do is convince people to listen to you. After that, the music is fully in control. Anything that people enjoy will spread across the internet and by word of mouth, but it has to be presented well.”
9. Thou shalt release digital and hard copies of thy music. Perception is key. Most people won’t even bother listening to a song if it seems the band is amateurish—no matter how good the song may be. But if you have an album to sell at shows, you’ll look like a pro. Canto I has recorded two successful full-length albums, so heed their advice:
“Just album-wise, it takes a good $3,000 on each project to fully make the most of your money and create the highest potential for availability. There are several companies that will press and manufacture albums online, and it’s just about finding one that provides the best service because the pricing is relatively consistent. … With the right company manufacturing an album, $3,000 will get you over 1,000 fully packaged, CDDB and Soundscan barcoded, 100 percent compatible audio discs available in the catalogs of over 400 stores worldwide, plus over 100 digital distributors on the net including iTunes, Rhapsody… If [fans] see that you invest time and money in making the highest quality product, things will work out a lot better in the long run.”
10. Thou shall only go as far as thy music is good. No matter how pretty your album looks, or how many shows you’ve done, or how many Myspace views you have, at the end of it all, you must have the music to back it.