Interview - Jun 19, 2003
"The power to build your career starts with you and stays with you."Bobby Borg is a musician and an author with a vast experience in the music business. His recent book, The Musicianís Handbook, covers artist-related aspects of the industry. In this interview, he tells us how artists can build a career, what music business realities they need to be aware of, and what clauses artists should look out for in record company contracts.
How did you get started in the music business?
I was born in Princeton, NJ, into a very creative family. My father was a successful artist and always played a lot of music at home: Duke Ellington, Harry James, mostly big band and jazz music. Thatís how I became interested in music; at the age of four, I was already taking drum lessons.
Being in the proximity of New York City, I had the opportunity to study with some of the best musicians in the world. I studied with Kenwood Dennard, who played with Sting and Dizzie Gillespie; Billy Heart, who played with Miles Davis; and the list goes on. I then went on to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston; after that, I moved to New York and began my professional career by co-forming the rock band Beggars & Thieves, who got signed to Atlantic Records and were managed by Q-Prime, who also managed Metallica and Def Leppard.
When Beggars & Thieves parted a few years later, I went on to form my own band, Left For Dead, in Los Angeles. I co-wrote the music, booked and managed the band, and negotiated licensing and distribution deals in the US and Japan. It was with LFD that I got a great deal of experience at the independent level of the business. After Left For Dead I joined the multi-platinum rock band Warrant, with whom I co-wrote and recorded two albums and toured the world.
I have also written six method books for musicians and articles for music magazines, I write regularly for a number of magazines and online resources, and I speak on music business panels at industry conventions and seminars.
What are your current activities?
I have been focusing on writing The Musicianís Handbook, which is a practical guide to the music business published by Billboard Books and released worldwide. This has been a passion of mine, simply because my experiences in the business have shown me that most musicians spend a great deal of their energy on the creative aspects and, as a result, they often entrust too many of the business aspects to other professionals and, in many cases, get taken advantage of.
I did a great deal of research and discovered that the reason why a lot of artists do this is because theyíre afraid that the business side might take too much time away from their craft. I put together a book that is very musician-friendly, that is written in plain English, that cuts to the chase and gives musicians the information they need to understand the intricacies of the music business.
What experiences have helped develop your understanding of how the music business works?
I learned the business the hard wayone mistake at a time, by going through a series of situations where a manager perhaps reneged on a contract, or a record deal turned out to be your worst nightmare. Once youíve gone through these types of experiences itís easier to understand how the industry works, what can go wrong and how fragile it is. I began to really understand contracts and why unfortunately only a small number of people succeed.
I would say that although the best way to learn is through experience, itís not the most fun or cost effective method and artists can save themselves a great deal of hardship, and cash, by educating themselves about the business.
What different aspects does The Musicianís Handbook cover?
The book is filled with interviews, anecdotes, and quotes from top industry professionals, managers, publishers, music attorneys, business managers, musicians, songwriters, publicists, etc. Itís basically for anybody whoís interested in a successful career in the music business.
The first part covers a variety of topics, including ways in which, as artists, you can increase your chances of getting signed by understanding more about A&R personnel; controlling your own destiny by being proactive; climbing through back windows when front doors arenít being opened to you; building career awareness by expanding your presence on the Internet; developing a realistic attitude by ignoring media hype; and being practical about money by saving it and making it grow.
The second part talks about business relationships such as band agreements and also employment aspects, including things like how much youíre supposed to get paid, deals, retainers, etc.
The third part focuses on the roles of the many business professionals you may need to help you make the right career decisions, such as attorneys, personal managers, business managers, talent agents, and record producers. Itís important to understand what role each of these important team members plays, as well as at what time in the development of your career their assistance is necessary.
The fourth section of the book deals with topics like music publishing, record royalties and advances, income from touring and merchandising: all the revenue streams that musicians might expect to encounter in their career.
What differentiates it from similar books?
Itís the first book written by someone who has been in the trenches, i.e. on the tour buses, on stage, in the rehearsal rooms, and through label signings. It has insider appeal; thatís number one.
Secondly, the book doesnít rely entirely on my experiencesóitís not a book about Bobby Borg. This is a book based on a great amount of research. I spoke to artists like Henry Rollins and Black Flag, and industry professionals like Neil Gillis, A&R at Warner/Chappell Music, Mark Goldstein, Sr. VP of Business Affairs at Warner Brothers, and Chris Arnstein, personal manager of the Eagles, to mention but a few. The fact that it is written from an objective point of view gives it a broad appeal.
Thirdly, I did an incredible amount of focus-group marketing, meaning that each section was sent to hundreds of musicians so that they could give me their opinion. As a result, I edited sections where I went into too much detail and added to passages where detail was lacking. The book is based around what musicians want and need to know.
The fourth thing is that I saw what other books were lacking and made sure that mine didnít miss those same things. I saw what made other books good and I used those things and expanded on them.
The fifth thing and last thing is the fact that I am not attached to any corporate entity. I donít have to answer to shareholders or my boss at a big major label record company, so I have absolutely nothing to hide and I have a very honest, no-holds-barred approach to the industry.
What must artists consider before embarking on a music career?
The most important thing is that music is an art, but making money from it is a very serious business. It requires a great deal of planning and research, and an understanding that the people in the music industry are in it to make a profit. That has to be the bottom line, to a certain extent. It canít just be about how special you are as an artist and how great your music is. More often it has to do with how people are going to make money from you. As soon as you start to look at it from a business perspective, it starts to make much more sense. Youíre not going to be as sensitive if someone doesnít like your music or if your record doesnít sell as much as you thought it would. In other words, it is a business, so train yourself as thoroughly as you can and always bear in mind that it is a business.
With that said, the next thing is to always remember why you got into this. You got into it for the love of music. No matter whether you sell ten records or hundreds of thousands, youíre going to be happy and this is going to be your life choice. Itís extremely important that artists remember that.
How can an aspiring artist build a music career?
My number one tip for artists is to maintain as much control as possible. The power to build your career starts with you and stays with you. You have to be proactive and get out there and do it. Rehearse your songs and get as much feedback as you can. Once you have a body of very good songs that are performed and sung well as a result of your hard work, record them and manufacture CDs. There are many opportunities these days to record and manufacture CDs cheaply. Then sell the CDs at your shows and at sites like CD Baby, and send them to local and college radio stations. Upload songs to sites like mp3.com, and contact fanzines and e-zines and try to get them to interview your band. Make a great web site and give people a reason to visit it. Start a newsletter and post reviews about your band on your site. Build a strong Internet community and build a local community through your live performances.
Always maintain the attitude that your success is up to you. Be as proactive as possible with your career, and managers and A&R reps will find you.
At what point should a band agree on how to divide responsibilities and income?
Certainly within the first month. Most musicians are so anxious to get their career started and put a band together that potential problems are often overlooked, especially personality flaws. Itís really important from the inception of the band to sit down and decide where youíre going, what your ambitions are, how long you think it will take you to fulfil those ambitions, how serious everyone is, etc. Itís good to find out about these things at the start, because otherwise problems are bound to crop up further down the line.
Itís also important to discuss legal aspects, such as the investments that the band are going to make, whether everyone is going to pitch in if you decide to buy a PA, what happens to a memberís portion if he or she leaves, etc. These are important issues and itís great to have it all tucked away in an agreement and be able to get on with life.
Are there standard band agreements?
Richard Stim, the attorney, has written a great book called ďMusic Law: How To Run Your Bandís Business,Ē which includes a formal agreement called a partnership or band partnership agreement. Itís a vary basic agreement that allows musicians to sort out their ideas and put them into words. You can also go to nolo.com, a web site that deals with legal issues.
Another thing you might consider is looking in the section called ďBand Membership AgreementsĒ in my book. It talks about the key points musicians should include in their band membership agreements. You donít always have to get an attorney to do this, but one thing I would recommend is that once youíve put the agreement together, get an attorney to have a look at it to make sure youíve covered everything.
Who should you try to network with first when you are starting out as an artist?
Networking is extremely important at the beginning of your career and the best way to network as an artist or musician is to do it in your own community. ďThe world is not your market,Ē is a great quote: if you try to do too much, you end up doing too little. Try to work on the opportunities that exist in your hometown. For example, what is the hottest band in your area right now? Go and see their show, get to know them, and try to figure out why they are further along in their careers than you are. They might be able to give you some inside scoops, perhaps they have a manager who helps them and might be interested in helping you, perhaps you can open for them, perhaps the band is planning a trip or a regional tour and they might be interested in taking you along.
Opportunities are available right on your own doorstep. If youíre in a large city, thereís a variety of songwriter groups that you can get involved with. You can contact your local musiciansí union, because they sometimes have opportunities for artists to network. Also try to play at jam sessions.
What should unsigned artists be aware of when approaching A&Rs, managers, publishers and producers? --
First and foremost; you need to have well-crafted songs. Secondly, make sure that the vocalist performing those songs is top-notch, and sings in key! Thirdly, the sound quality of your recording must be clearthereís no excuse for mud these days. Fourthly, the presentation of your material must look professionalno handwritten bios and CD labels.
Music publishers and record labels will typically not be interested in your band unless you've taken an extremely proactive approach to your career and have already got some kind of buzz going. Even if a music publisher or a record label thinks that your band is amazing, if they canít dig up any reviews, CD sales figures or airplay, theyíre not going to be very interested in signing you. The labels are going to wait until your band gets out there and builds some momentum on its own.
Therefore, my suggestion is that until you do a lot of work for yourself and begin creating a buzz, donít waste your time approaching labels because in most cases itís not going to lead to anything.
Whose services should an unsigned artist enlist first: those of an attorney, a manager, a publisher, a record company, a business manager or a booking agent?
Artists typically enlist an entertainment attorney first to assist them in shopping a record deal. Attorneys are usually extremely well connected in the music industry due to the considerable number of clients they represent in their careers.
What factors should one take into account when deciding whether or not to work with a particular manager?
The two most important factors are trust and respect. If you think about it, you have spent your entire career learning how to play your instrument, youíve put your band together, made phone calls for gigs, and all of a sudden youíre going to hand over your whole career to somebody else. Why do that? Do you really trust them to take your career to the next level? Do you believe that theyíre genuinely interested in your career? Are they making false promises? Are they saying that they see a record deal just around the corner and six months down the line you still donít have one? Itís very important that you genuinely feel that you trust your manager. Does he like your music? Has he been coming to your shows? Has he been trying to help you even before he asked to manage you officially? These are all extremely important things.
As far as respect goes, respect doesnít necessarily having anything to do with the number of gold records hanging on the managerís wall, but rather on the image that this person portrays. Is he or she well educated? Does he or she know a lot about the business? Is he or she a bully? How does he or she conduct business? How does he or she look? Does he or she speak eloquently on the phone? These are all things you want to consider before you sign with a manager.
Considering record labels are less and less concerned with developing new artists and instead want a ready-to-go package, who do you think will be primarily responsible for the development of new artists?
Artist development lies with the artist. Do as much as you can before you get signed, because it puts you in a more powerful position and it also ensures that the record label understands what it is youíre trying to do in a creative sense. Your songs, your image, your pictures, your bio and your video all tell the label who you are and what youíre about. This way they canít make you into something that youíre not, which is something that happens all the time.
Are A&R reps increasingly acting like product managers whilst neglecting their traditional role as talent scouts?
If what you're asking is whether or not A&R reps are increasingly looking for bands with finished product, rather than looking for raw undeveloped talent, then the answer is yes. A&R reps look for the past of least resistance. They look for artists that have taken the time to develop themselves.
Imagine recording artists being in a similar situation to that of actors i.e. being able to record for different labels without being contractually obliged to stick with one. Do you think this might be desirable, and do you think it would work?
In the past, movie stars were contracted to major motion picture companies whereas now they work as free agents. So the obvious question is why canít music artists be free agents as well? Itís an interesting point that Iíd like to give more thought to, but just off the top of my head, one of the reasons why record companies want to have a contract with an artist for more than one record is because the record industry is a very risky business. If they take a band and spend US$250,000 on a recording, $300,000 on a video, $100 to $200,000 on radio promotion and US$50 to $75,000 dollars on tour support, they want to know that, if the band are successful, theyíre going to be able to stick with it over the course of several years so that they can recoup and make money from their investment. This is one of the reasons why labels try to keep artists under contract for as long as they possibly can.
If artists share the costs of making their album since these costs are recoupable from their royalties, do you think they should also share the ownership of the masters?
Absolutely. The record company gives you a recording fund that is completely recoupable against future sales. But when the record company has recouped its money, they still own the masters. Itís crazy and I definitely think that at some point the masters should become the property of the artist.
What do you think of US radio?
There's a great quote by an anonymous music director that says it all: "music is the space that fills the time between the commercials that make us money." In other words, radio isn't about music first: it's about profit, advertising and ratings. It's difficult for a new artist to break on radio. In fact, some labels don't even bother trying to break artists via radio any more and instead concentrate on other mediums such as television commercials or film.
With the growth of the Internet, what role do you think record labels will assume in the future? What will their business model look like?
I donít think anyone really knows, including record companies. Record labels are concerned about the fact that people can download free music from the Internet, and they feel that itís hurting their sales and diminishing their power, which is true. What are they going to do? Perhaps theyíre going to come to the conclusion that they canít make money from record sales anymore, so theyíre going to start dipping into other revenue streams such as music publishing, merchandising and touring.
However, I donít think that thatís going to be the trend. I think labels will stop fighting free music on the Internet, and start competing with it. Theyíre going to set up web sites that provide downloads for 99 cents, for example, with guaranteed customer service and quality. Labels will step up the competition against illegal sites by giving people reasons to go to their sites rather than the others.
What role will independent record labels play?
Independent record labels are already playing a much stronger role in the business than they were a few years ago. Home recording gear has enabled artists to make records for much cheaper these days. CD manufacturing is also cheaper. Promotion is more accessible via the Internet. All of these factors allow the smallest of labels to keep their expenses to a minimum and potentially turn a profit. As a result, the labels are more likely to work with developing the artist over the long-term, which is of course more attractive to artists.
What clause in artistsí contracts with record companies would you like to get rid of?
Something called the ďcontrolled composition clauseĒ. When you are the songwriter of a song, by law you are entitled to what is called a statutory mechanical royalty, which means that the record company pays for the use of your song on a phonograph record. The current statutory rate is eight US cents for compositions under five minutes. With the controlled composition clause, the record company tries to make you agree to a lesser percentage of that rate, usually 75%.
They also try to reduce the number of songs that are going to earn a mechanical royalty. For example, if you have fifteen songs on a record, they say that they will only pay you the mechanical royalty for ten of those songs. They also go on to say that as the statutory mechanical rate increases over the years, theyíre only going to pay you the rate at the time that you entered into the agreement. Therefore, if the rate is now eight cents, but a few years back it was six cents, youíre still getting paid the six-cents rate even though by law you are entitled to the higher rate. The controlled composition clause is one of the most damaging to an artistís income and the first that I would like to see go.
What other aspects of the music industry would you change?
I would like to see more commitment on behalf of major record labels towards developing its artists. Bands are getting signed and their success is based on one single. The record label puts the single out, passes it onto radio and, if it doesnít take off within two to three weeks, the label almost certainly gives up on the band.
Industry people must become more sensitive to artists. They have to understand that each contract isnít just a piece of paper, it can represent fifteen to twenty years of an artist's life. Iíve seen so many artists work for so long before they finally get a deal. They release a record, theyíre all excited, it comes out, and within the first few weeks nothing happens and their career is down the toilet. Sometimes this is enough to cause artists to call it quits all together because they don't have the strength to start over again. I have seen artists ruined over deals gone bad.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The first time I ever heard myself on radio, the first time I ever saw myself on MTV and probably the first time I ever sat behind a drum kit and looked out into an audience of thirty thousand people. All that stuff gave me an amazing feeling and it all has to do with one thing: music, the way music makes me feel and the fact that Iím able to share that music with other people. Music should have nothing to do with the car you drive or the house you buy.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?
I have pursued a career as an artist for a great part of my life. I have become very passionate these days in trying to assist and educate other artists about the music industry. Iíve written books, I write for major magazines, I consult with artists, I consult with independent labels, and I teach as an associate professor at UCLA in California. I can see myself being involved in some capacity in the business, whether as an artist manager or working with a label that I believe in. It could be a number of things, who knows? I still do sessions, so I might find myself becoming more involved in playing, but weíll seeÖ
Interviewed by Jean-FranÁois Mťan
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