One of the most important things that your band needs to realize when working with a label, a manager or anyone of importance is that these people are going to be utilitarians. Your band is ultimately just a chess piece to many industry people. It’s a whole game that’s frankly kind of terrifying but also necessary given how the industry works. Any given deal that goes down on a high level between companies, be it a tour, a band being assigned to a manager partnered with a label or any other sort of deal where money is being made, is part of a vast game. A lot of this too ties into what I wrote about in an earlier article about record labels wanting to be bought. You have to realize that again, this is an industry, an industry where a lot of people are friends, but also one where you can never underestimate the power of a favor and a single political misstep can screw you out of huge opportunities, and so bands become chess pieces.
Ultimately you need to see the industry from the suits perspective. Any given band is probably only going to have at most five years of true popularity. That gives them a small window to recoup on their initial investment and then go forward and make a little bit of money. Sure there are bands that go far beyond that window but those are the exception, not the norm. So at the end of the day the people running your scene want to have money over the long term. They aren’t trying to get big in the here and now. Thus they might give away a band who tour a lot to an agent they know is up and coming even if he might not be the best agent for that band simply because they want him to owe them a favor down the line. By the same token managers might sign bands to struggling labels simply because they know they can get more money from the label later. It leads to murky moral territory, but is also an unfortunate reality.
Most successful bands realize that they are simply pieces in a greater puzzle. They understand that the industry is a much more far reaching thing than their own careers and that they should be grateful for any interest at all. Furthermore they are able to look at themselves from a outside perspective and then determine who they want to be working with on order for this to make sense. They realize which bands out there are actually doing stuff worth continuing to check out and which bands are mere pretenders and know that they need to be part of the former category. Once you figure out where you fit into the scene from an industry perspective then you can start to realize where you are being used as a bargaining chip and where you are actually getting a risk taken on you. I know it’s easy to get really bitter about this and feel like you are constantly being used as a bargaining chip, that’s certainly a valid viewpoint but sometimes you just need to learn to embrace it.
Once you accept your role as a political piece in the industry things seem to get naturally easier. You no longer have to wonder why people seem to be ignoring you all the time and why the tours you want aren’t coming through even if your manager claims he is fighting for them. Sure it may be because your band sucks, but the odds are you wouldn’t have representation if your band was bad. Instead it’s just that the political situation isn’t favoring you right now. Now that is probably a sign to change managers, or at least have a very serious conversation, especially if you feel like it’s happening again and again. The manager is of course incentivized to keep you on board as long as possible but sometimes they just can’t take the time out of their day to take a risk on you. That’s when you need to shift to someone more DIY who you think will be more willing to spend time on you and make something truly special start to happen.
This is where you can start to use the politics of music to your advantage. Most people find the politics of this whole thing to be kind of shitty because they got into the scene through punk rock and want to support the bands they love. You can call crooked managers out on being overtly political and that will frequently get you at least a bit of traction. By the same token you can use yourself as a bargaining chip, make sacrifices here and there in order to guarantee better deals for yourself down the line. If managers and labels view your band as a chess piece then why shouldn’t you? I know that sounds a little bit crass and nihilistic, but let’s be real – you need to do whatever you can to get a leg up in this industry and if this is what it’s going to be then so be it. The thing is, the suits respect people who can play the game, even if they don’t do it as well as they do. If you show you can handle that then people will start to pay more and more attention.
So yeah – the constant politicking of the music industry is frustrating and it often means that significantly less gets done than should be. It’s something that very few people legitimately enjoy but that you have to be a willing part of in order to get things cooking in a way that remains productive and helpful for the collective. When it comes down to it the best industry people care more about the scene than anything else and that’s going to sometimes lead to them having to make hard choices that won’t always benefit your band. You simply need to accept this and the inherent struggles found within this industry – people here work really hard to make not a lot of money, they just want to make it work, and it’s never easy.
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