So yeah – this is the brutal truth that we all need to wrap our heads around. It’s one of those things that I don’t think any of us fully grasp until we are faced with it in someone we admire. In a multi-billion dollar industry that markets to just about everyone on the planet, it would seem odd that no one really seems to fully understand what’s going on. But, somehow, this is the case. I’m not really sure why it happened, beyond the fact that music industry degrees are a bunch of crap and lead to people getting jobs with no real experience to back them up. So yeah – despite what so many of us want to think – no one really knows what’s going on in the music industry.
I feel like everyone who has been around the block a few times can clearly remember the first time they realized this. The notion that ‘Oh hey, if I just answer emails in a timely manner, do what I’m told, and don’t lie, I’m a step up above everyone around me’ seems like it should be obvious but was one of the first indications to me that there was a veil of illusion in the music industry. Managers I know are regularly pleased to find out that the labels they work with love them because they can give well written and timely feedback. Other bands will find out that much to their surprise, by merely asking for a guarantee they can just end up getting one. Hell, even big name companies will cement massive deals with nothing more than a handshake. Shaky legal ground? (Ba dum tss) Yes. But apparently it’s enough to base an entire industry off of. There are a lot of reasons for this, but ultimately though I think it can be boiled down to two key factors.
First off – people are trying to be cool, and the general ethos seems to be ‘Well if we’re just cool why don’t you just shake my hand and call it a deal?’ this is all well and good on the underground scene, but if I were you I would get a little antsy when people try to play this off in bigger contexts. As lame as contracts are, a good one protects everyone’s interests. Don’t get me wrong though, people who hand wave away contracts aren’t all bad – in many case they are actually better, they care about the spirit of the art not the legalities. You just need to make sure that whoevers hand you’re shaking happens to be a trustworthy individual.
The second factor is the lack of education. The people who tend to be the most ‘real’ either didn’t get a degree at all, or got one in a totally unrelated field to the music industry. This means that they learned everything by doing it, which is great, just limiting in regards to things like contract and setting up non-DIY tours. This general lack of education leads to people just guessing and hoping for optimal results, and also a weird sort of rift. Those who are educated tend not to have the DIY cred that the people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps do – but the educated ones, who rarely understand the underground, also have access to the big money. Finding a balance within this is one of the hardest things that you are going to have to learn how to do in the music industry.
Finding balance between these two worlds is the single hardest part of surviving in the music industry. Some labels, like Relapse or Season of Mist have a really good handle on this, and this has led to decades of success. Others, oftentimes the majors or wannabe majors, don’t grasp this quite as much and this leads to some very negative repercussions. When finding a label you are going to want to find one with people who can straddle the divide. You need an A&R guy who’s down with the kids, but a legal team who can embrace Donald Passman when they see him at industry parties. If you can find this balance in your own career then you are even better off. It’s rare to see, but still doable that you get a band who crossover like that, able to play basements and then turn around, put on suits and hobnob with major label executives.
It’s not impossible for individuals to find this balance. It’s just that people tend to be awful. Folks think they know everything all the time. Why? Because music industry people are artists, and artists have a tendency for megalomania. It’s one of those fundamental things that makes this entire industry a nightmare. If people could properly bridge the gap then maybe record labels wouldn’t be in as bad a place, but they can’t. So you’ve got crust punks like me, whining about jerks at major distribution companies impacting labels trying to do exciting stuff. It’s all cut off and nightmarish, handling the storm is the real struggle.
It’s important that you, as a growing individual in this industry realize these factors impacting every deal you try to make. This is why it’s important to try and bond with people on a personal level. The more that you understand about their backgrounds, the more easily you will be able to deal with them. No one has any clue what’s going on because almost no one has been able to have the breadth of experience necessary to juggle all possible worlds. Nowadays we have an industry where the underground and majors are more separated than ever, but the underground has a bigger impact than any other time in the industry’s history. If you can handle this, manipulate the meeting of worlds and shake hands with everyone you are on track for great things.