The Point of Entry

Jul 05 2010

I don’t usually get too personal in this blogspace– but I thought this week I’d offer up a quick excerpt from Chapter One of the Eric Beall biography for which absolutely no one is waiting (and which happily, no one is actually writing).

The story begins just before I graduated from Berklee College of Music, when, like most graduates everywhere, I was searching out possible job opportunities with a mixture of anticipation, excitement, ignorance and desperation. While I didn’t know much about what I was doing, at least I knew enough to be reading Billboard regularly, and that was where I happened on an article about a young whiz-kid named Tom Silverman, who was the founder of Tommy Boy Records, one of the seminal record labels in the history of hip-hop.

Riding high off the success of “Planet Rock” at Tommy Boy, Tom was quickly emerging as an industry leader, having also co-founded the New Music Seminar. Based in NYC, this conference was at the epicenter of a wave of new music taking shape in the early 1980s, it was where new wave and punk rock, hip-hop and electronic dance music all met and mingled, with hundreds of new artists, indie label owners, A&R people, press and other entrepreneurs plotting out their path into the industry.

The article I read about Tom Silverman concerned his plans to launch an industry group called “The Independent Label Coalition”, which was intended to be a trade group controlled by independent labels from across genres. The hope was that by working together to improve the business environment in the independent music world, the ILC could increase the ability of these smaller companies to compete with the major labels that dominated the industry. At the end of the Billboard interview, Tom pointedly mentioned that he was looking for volunteers– and I quickly reached out to be in contact.

Tom Silverman, from Tommy Boy Records and the New Music Seminar

To me, The Independent Label Coalition seemed like an ideal opportunity to meet people in the music business, learn about the industry, and hopefully build relationships that would result in gainful employment. To Tom, my willingness to volunteer undoubtedly confirmed yet again one of his pet theories, that in the music business, there was always a young kid who would work for free just for the chance to be involved. Happily, I did manage to meet Tom shortly thereafter, and was given a small role in the Independent Label Coalition.

I moved to New York from Boston in the middle of July, 1984, dropped my still-packed boxes in my tiny apartment, and immediately reported for duty at the New Music Seminar, where the Independent Label Coalition was officially being launched. I helped to check people in for the conference; I stood for endless hours at the ILC booth in the exhibit hall; I worked the door at Studio 54, where the Independent Label Coalition had a kick-off party. I was yelled at by Bob Krasnow (the head of Elektra Records); I screwed up most of what I touched; I tried to network in rooms of hundreds of people where I didn’t know a soul. But I also met dozens of new entrants in the music business sweepstakes, saw early performances from artists that ranged from the Beastie Boys to Run DMC to RuPaul to Madonna (check out the video below), and sat in dozens of panels where I learned the realities of how our industry is structured. Thanks to Tom Silverman and the New Music Seminar, I suddenly entered the music business, and I’ve been fortunate enough to remain there ever since.

The Independent Label Coalition didn’t actually work out very well– the idea of coordinating activities among indie record labels, made up of some of the most defiantly “independent” personalities in the world, proved to be a little Utopian for the real world. To me, it didn’t much matter. The ILC did exactly what I needed it to do, which was to give me my first network of friends, supporters and mentors in the music industry. In fact, many of those people I still maintain relationships with today, more than twenty years later. One of the leaders of the ILC was David Renzer, who at the time was a successful songwriter and producer. David went on to become the head of Zomba Music Publishing, where he wound up signing me to my first publishing deal. Now, David is the worldwide president of Universal Music Publishing. Another early compatriot from the ILC days was Duncan Hutchison, who became the president of Caroline Records, and is now the Chief Content Officer of RightsFlow, the licensing organization.

The ILC also introduced me to to a wide group of record industry entrepreneurs, including Eddie O’Loughlin at Next Plateau Records, who continues to be a colleague and mentor to me, Sergio Cossa, for whom Shapiro Bernstein, the company where I work now, administers the Emergency Music catalog, and of course, the illustrious Tom Silverman.

To bring this story to a well-crafted and slightly ironic conclusion, it turns out that Tom Silverman, along with my friend David Lory, one of the industry’s most creative and forward-looking executives, has now relaunched the New Music Seminar. After concluding in 1995, the New Music Seminar was brought back to life in 2009.

Dave Lory, New Music Seminar

As it turns out, I’ll be participating in NMS 2010, being held July 19-21st in New York. I’ll be promoting my books, “Making Music Make Money” and “The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell”, as well as my new consulting service, “Ask The Music Business Weasel”. If you can be in or around New York during this time, I strongly urge you to be a part of this conference, which is all about uncovering new paradigms and business models for success in today’s music business. And if you’re there, please find me and say hello. I’m looking forward to signing some books, chatting a bit, and being part of an event that played a key role in my own development as a songwriter, producer and executive.

Contrary to what many believe, the music business is not really such a tough thing to break into. There are no entrance exams, no licenses to obtain, and far less financial commitment than in almost any other business (have you ever thought what it would cost you to get into the restaurant business, or steel-manufacturing?).

Even better, there are hundreds of organizations, societies, conferences, and trade groups to help you start your network. The New Music Seminar is one of many such points of entry. All you have to do is show up, start learning how the industry works, and make some friends. It worked for me. I’ll hope to see you there…

After an upbeat pep talk to begin the year, it seems appropriate now to acknowledge what we all know:

Things do not always go as planned.

Have you noticed that? If you’ve tried any of the previously given tips on how to get your music out there, I’m pretty sure you’ve definitely noticed that as good as the ideas look on paper, they don’t always play out as well in real life. The truth is that the work of putting your music out into the industry is every bit as difficult as the creative work of writing songs and making records. And that’s pretty hard.

Unfortunately, most of us bring a lot more tenacity and determination to making the music than we do to selling it. It’s always interesting to watch musicians, who have spent countless lonely, isolated hours honing and refining their ability to play a musical instrument or to sing, then devote all of twenty minutes to researching potential contacts. Producers who will miss deadlines or blow out their budget to fix tiny flaws in a recording (which are probably noticeable only to them), will balk at spending money to attend a conference, or will choose to send out mass emails to A&R contacts, rather than personalized ones, in order to save a few minutes worth of work. Songwriters will work and rework one simple line in a hundred variations, but give up in despair when their first phone call attempt to an A&R person goes unreturned.

Be forewarned: no matter how strategically you approach it, getting your music out there will always be challenging. You will run into closed doors everywhere you turn. Everyone does. But somehow, each year, a handful of people do break through. We know then that it can be done. It’s simply a case of trying every possible avenue until you find the one that works. So, to conclude a series of blogs on “How To Get Your Music Heard”, here’s three ideas of how to trouble-shoot when your sales approach isn’t working. Most importantly, don’t panic and don’t get discouraged. This problem is no harder than learning to play an instrument, finding the perfect title, or figuring out why your Protools isn’t working. When your first approach fails…

1. Check your connections.

The most common response you’ll hear when trying to get someone in the industry to listen to your music is this:

Our company does not allow us to accept unsolicited material at this time.

Welcome to the dead zone, from which most songwriters and publishers never return. Indeed, that’s part of the reason for such a policy. By its nature it will eliminate at least 50% of the people trying to call the company. Most will just give up.

Don’t give up. At the same time, don’t get mad– as irritating as it obviously is. The person who is telling you this is telling you the truth. Almost every major music company has an official policy, drafted by the corporate lawyers, that no A&R person is ALLOWED to accept material that is “unsolicited”, which is to say, from someone the A&R person doesn’t know. This is to protect companies from the very real threat of lawsuits, launched by amateur songwriters who are sure that their song was stolen by a superstar act. An A&R person who violates the policy and suddenly finds himself or herself at the center of a lawsuit could very likely lose their job.

The best way around this obstacle is to get out of the category of “someone the A&R person doesn’t know”. You need a connection. If you can drop the name of a lawyer, your ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC writer rep, another songwriter or producer who the A&R person has worked with, a friend in a different department of the company, or an established manager, booking agent, or radio programmer who is recommending you, you are now no longer “unsolicited”. This is the cover that the A&R person needs to be in compliance with company policy. It’s also the test you need to pass in order to make the person on the other end of the phone believe that it’s worth his or her time to speak with you.

If you’re getting the “unsolicited” line, then it’s time to go back and figure out who on your team (lawyer, manager, writer rep, songwriting buddies, studio engineer or owner, gear salesman, friends, etc.) might know the person you’re calling and be willing to refer you. If no one on your team can help, see if they know a friend of a friend of the person you’re calling. If you’re still unconnected, then you need to expand your team. Figure out who might be able to get to the music weasel you’re after, and go after that new person, starting the whole process over again.

I didn’t say it was easy.

2. Check your levels.

The second most common issue, after the “no unsolicited material” roadblock, is “nothing”. That is, total silence. Unreturned phone calls. Unanswered emails. The big freeze-out. You’re trying to get your music out there, and it seems there’s no “there” there.

Again, don’t get mad. Remember– just because you want someone to hear your music does not lay an obligation on the other person to take your call or listen to what you send. The person on the other end of the phone is being given priorities and duties by his or her boss, and they probably don’t include speaking with you. This is especially true as you move up the corporate ladder, and start trying to reach out to the higher-ranking executives on the A&R staff.

Most major record labels do have people that are searching for the next “developing” star– the hot, unknown songwriter or the undiscovered artist. But they are junior A&R people– not Sr. Vice-Presidents. The more elevated executives are supposed to be devoting their time to the superstars that are already signed and paying the bills. The same is true in major publishing companies and management firms. If you don’t yet have a track record or the calling card of a current “hit”, you will probably not have much luck reaching the Big Weasel. But that’s not who you need anyway, nor is that the person that needs you. You want to speak to the hungry, ambitious, excited, 22 year old kid that works for the Big Weasel and who wants more than anything to discover the talent that no one else knows about yet. This is how the kid will eventually become the Big Weasel. It is also how you will eventually get a returned phone call.

If you’re hitting a wall, it may be that you’re aiming too high. Adjust your aim one or two levels down the corporate pecking order, and you might find an open door.

3. Check your sound.

I know it will come as a shock, but some people may simply not like what you do. They have that right. In fact, if what you do is reasonably stylized, quirky, or clever, you can be sure that most people in the industry will not quite get it. Sony dropped Alicia Keys. Jive dropped Kid Rock. Lady Gaga is already on her second record deal. The fact that some people don’t like what you do might mean that there’s a problem with your music– you’ll have to determine how to address that. But it also might mean that you simply don’t have the right match between your sound and the person listening. There’s no accounting for taste–and you don’t have to. All you have to do is find the person whose taste is suited to your music.

As a veteran of the music industry, one of the few advantages that I enjoy is that I have begun to understand the likes and dislikes of the people to whom I’m pitching music. This means that a huge part of my job is simply knowing how to match a particular song, a new artist, or a producer with the people in the industry who will “get it”, whatever that “it” is. If I hear a great Swedish style pop song, I know to send it to Jive Records or Syco, and not to Island/Def Jam. If I’ve discovered a new female singer/songwriter or a Triple A band, it’s going to fit better for Chop Shop than Activision. Much of song-pitching is not how you send it out, but who you send it to. If you’re not getting results, it may simply be that you haven’t matched your sound with the correct listener.

4. Check your options.

Every office has multiple entrances. There is always an alternate way into any project. Persistence is vital, but persistently beating on a closed door will not make it open. The good kind of persistence is the kind that knocks on a door once, twice, maybe a third time… and then circles around the back, and goes in the side entrance. If an A&R person refuses your “unsolicited material”, try the artist manager. Many managers are one or two person companies, and thus have far fewer corporate “policies” that have to be respected. If the manager won’t respond, try the producer. If that proves to be a dead end, just keep searching– try the artist directly on MySpace or Facebook, or a friend of the artist, or the recording engineer, or the fashion stylist. Whatever crazy idea you have, I promise you, someone has tried something stranger. Not quitting doesn’t mean picking one person and torturing them until they listen to your song. It means searching for every possible person to torture. Just joking. But it does mean that you never stop looking for another way to approach the project that you’re targeting.

I hope the little series we’ve done on “Getting Your Music Out” has been helpful. I know in the opening paragraph of this blog, I compared the challenge of selling your music to making it– and in many ways the two things are quite similar. But in a few important ways, they’re as different as night and day. You know that rush you feel when you play a great guitar solo, or come up with the perfect hook line for a song? You’ll probably never get that feeling when you’re pitching music. It just doesn’t have that kind of reward. Instead, you get rejection followed by rejection followed by a slight glimmer of hope.

But here’s the thing: if you don’t do it, nothing happens. No stranger is going to find a song hiding on your hard drive and decide to put it on the radio. You’re going to have to make that happen. That’s the point of my book, “Making Music Make Money”. The only thing that can move your career ahead is if someone else hears your music and wants to buy it, sell it, perform it, or help you to do one of those three things. That won’t happen if the song never leaves your home studio.
If you haven’t made your New Year’s Resolution yet, here’s one: resolve to spend one hour pitching songs for every five hours writing or recording them. Get your music out there, and let’s see what happens…

As the year begins to wind down (all the weasels are packing their bags and running for the airport– probably trying to avoid the blizzard of oncoming pink slips flying around the office), it’s a good time for songwriters to take a day or two and assess where they are in their career, where they’re going, and what it will take to get them there. As to the last point, I’ve already got one good suggestion to consider:

Songwriters– You need a publisher.

Some of you probably already know this. Some of you might already have a publishing deal. Undoubtedly, some of you are probably asking the obvious question: “Why? Why would I need a publisher?”

In order to answer that, we actually have to circle back to the first two topics of consideration: where are you in your career, and where do you want to go? If you’re a songwriter, I’ll assume that you probably have some songs. Most songwriters don’t have a shortage in that area. What most songwriters lack are songs that generate income– that make money. If that’s where you are, and you’d like to get to a point where your songs can be the basis of a business, then a publisher is exactly what you need. Because that’s what publishers do.

Songwriting itself is not a business. It’s a sort of avocation. It’s just something you do. You create songs. This would explain why most of the time songwriters have a closet full of demos, and not a lot in the way of income.

Music Publishing, on the other hand, is indeed a business. That’s all it is. It is the business of deriving income from songs. When I wrote my book on music publishing, I called it “Making Music Make Money”. Songwriters create songs. Music publishers take those songs and figure out how to turn them into money, by getting the songs on records or the radio, in films or television shows, in advertisements or onto sheet music.

Sound good? I thought so. The goal then for 2008 is to find a publisher. There’s only one drawback. If your songs aren’t generating much in the way of income at the moment, it will be almost impossible to find a publisher who will be interested in representing you. Music publishers are primarily interested in representing writers who have already demonstrated at least the potential for commercial success. Bummer.

But don’t despair. The good news is that you already have a publisher. This person has been with you since you completed your first song. This person knows your catalogue note by note, and is unwavering in his or her belief in your talent. Before you go searching around the studio to find this person, and start yelling at them about why you’re not getting more cuts, let me clue you in:

You’re it. YOU are your publisher. The minute you complete a song, you are not only the writer of it, but you are also the publisher of it– and you remain the publisher until you assign those rights to someone else. The problem with most songwriters is not that they don’t have a publisher– the problem is that they’re not very good publishers. They’re doing the job as songwriters, but they haven’t learned how to take that work, and turn into into something that creates income. The real resolution for 2008 is not to find a publisher. It’s to learn to become a good publisher.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, nor as hard as you might fear. It does mean gathering a certain amount of technical knowledge about how royalties are computed, how money is collected and distributed, and how licenses are negotiated. It means learning to research projects, develop contacts, and pitch your songs. In order to be effective, it requires learning to listen to your own music critically, and making judgements about which songs are commercially viable, and which ones need work. If that sounds like a dirty job, then here’s the reality check:

Someone’s gotta do it. And you’re the only one who will. Until you can begin to work your songs into situations that at least have the potential to generate money, no publisher will suddenly be dropping by your apartment, wondering if you have any tunes that he or she can exploit. It’s up to you to get the ball rolling, and until you do, nothing will happen. Songwriting without publishing is a hobby.

The goal then for 2008 is to foster your inner music publisher. How do you do it? Study. Read “Making Music Make Money: An Insider’s Guide to Becoming Your Own Music Publisher” if you want a place to start. Check out Music Publishing 101 at The whole course is designed to walk you through the set-up of your own music publishing business.

Then while you’re studying, start doing. Pick up Billboard and start figuring out where your music fits into the market. Pick up tipsheets like “New On The Charts” to figure out who’s looking for songs. Pick up the phone, and start dialing for dollars.

The good news and the bad news is the same: it’s all in your hands. No one is going to turn your music into money– you have to show that it can be done. Trust me, once you do, there will be no shortage of large and small music publishers who will be happy to partner with you. But your first, and best publisher, will always be you. If you’re looking for one thing that can change your life as a songwriter, then this year’s goal is well-within reach. You need a publisher. And you’re it.