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Interview with PETER SPELLMAN, author of music business DIY books for artists - Apr 3, 2006

“Artists are too willing to sign onerous contracts. I’ve had lawyers outside of the music business look at some of the recording industry contracts handed to artists, and they’re absolutely shocked,”

picture … says Peter Spellman, owner of Music Business Solutions Inc., a training resource for music entrepreneurs involving writings, workshops and consulting.

He writes Do-It-Yourself books for artists and is releasing “Indie Marketing Power” in April. Read his unique advice and views on what artists should look out for when approaching the industry, and what formulas are used by successful artists, business-wise as well as artistically.

To read an excerpt from his upcoming book – “Indie Marketing Power”, click here.

What were your first steps in the music business?

I started singing and playing guitar in different bands when I was ten, and I was always the kid in the band who liked to do the business part too – you know, design the flyers, make the phone calls, book the gigs, negotiate the contracts.

I managed a small reggae/world beat label called Mighty Music between 1985 and 1992. It was built around a touring and recording act called The Mighty Charge. The label was picked up by Rita Marley’s company, Tuff Gong International, for stateside and Caribbean distribution.

George Eccles was one of my mentors early on. He’s the brother of the recently-deceased Clancy Eccles, who was a big producer in Jamaica. George grew up in the reggae scene in Jamaica around Bob Marley. He knew how to do independent music and promotion. I linked up with him while performing in The Mighty Charge.

Tom Blake, my art teacher in high school, was very instrumental in helping me understand myself as an artist. I was preparing for a career as a painter when I decided to go back to music. Tom helped me not to settle for the “least common denominator” career path and to truly pursue my dreams.

I come at the music business from the world of the artist, and that informs all my work.

What is Music Business Solutions Inc.?

Music Business Solutions is essentially a training resource for music entrepreneurs, involving writings, workshops and consulting. I left The Mighty Charge when my wife was pregnant with our first child to get something more consistent in terms of income.

One night while looking at all the contacts and information I had collected over the years I thought, “Wow, if only I’d had all this when I was first starting out.” And a light went on. I realized I could take all this great information, revise it, expand it, package it and put it out there for the musician community.

I started MBS in 1992 to be an informational resource for the Do-It-Yourself movement. MBS is a one-man-show, but over the years I created alliances with various people and businesses that my own company had an affinity with. It was a good time to be in on the ground floor of the indie revolution.

The arrival of the Web amplified my audience tremendously by putting my writings online. My work online qualifies me to clients so that when they call they’re ready to do business.

What are your current activities?

Currently I’m Director of the Career Development Center at Berklee College of Music in Boston. My job involves having one foot in the industry and one in the college, helping to build bridges between music careerists and the industry. It involves management, writing, resource development, teaching, counseling and consulting. My work at Berklee and MBS overlap.

I’m currently working on a funding proposal for a music business incubator in the Boston area, to help musicians who can’t afford to go to Berklee to get music and business training that will help them launch their own careers.

As for other current writing projects, I’m finishing up a book called Indie Marketing Power, which should be out in April, and also working on a Business Plan Guide for music entrepreneurs. Finally, I’m producing a rocksteady CD with George Eccles, as well as launching a music production/design company called Heady Brew Media. That’s it!

What advice would you give new artists on how to save time, energy and money building their careers?

In my book, The Self-Promoting Musician, I offer a success formula: TALENT + INFORMATION x ENERGY = SUCCESS. Though this is an obvious simplification, I think it still holds true. Talent is essential. These are gifts you have and the skills you acquire. Then you need the energy of yourself and others to magnify the talent and to give it a place to move out to. But the missing piece in musicians’ lives is often the information piece.

In general, artists are slow starters but good finishers if they stick with it. Career success can be accelerated by having clarity of vision for yourself and then putting lots of creative work into it on behalf of that vision. The right information allows you to create a map that gets you on your way to your destination. In a sense, I see myself as a “career cartographer”, a mapmaker.

If you produce, for example, trance music, you need to look at all the different information pieces that can go into that – appropriate radio shows, Ezines, record pools, discussion lists, magazines, affinity retailers, etc. Creating an informed map helps you know where the mountains are, where the rivers are to build bridges over, where the highways lie for quick action, and where the bogs are so you don’t get bogged down. The key is laying out a map so you can see your destination and have clear ideas of how to get there. That information piece is crucial.

The map is essentially a business and marketing plan. It helps you to anticipate and mentally rehearse challenges and maximize your resources of time, money and energy. That said, it’s important to remember that the map is not the territory. The road to success will always have surprises along the way. But having some kind of provisional guide will make your steps surer than they would be without one.

What’s the most important thing for an unsigned act to attract first?

An act needs to first pay the dues necessary for growing an audience – an audience that they can nurture and which will in turn support the act. Once an act achieves a certain level of success on its own, it’s then in a position to attract management, a booking agent, a label or some other partner company.

This was the strategy of Phish, and the Grateful Dead before them. It’s an approach used by OAR, Maktub and dozens of other acts in the States today.

I think it’s essential for an act to create some success on its own first and then use that as leverage to greater success. Success begets success.

Who should you network with first when you’re just starting out?

If you’re a recording artist then you want to try to link up with someone who has producing talent - someone who knows the gear and who can help you perform comfortably in that environment. If you’re a writer then you want to hook up with some co-writers who are a couple of steps ahead of you, and do some collaborative work with them. The networking piece is crucial to moving careers ahead.

You should also network with the well-connected, even if they’re outside the entertainment biz. People like clergy, professional organization leaders, politicians and their staffs. These people tend to know a lot of other diverse people, often through their work.

Music is probably the most relationship-driven business on the planet. The more people you know and who know you, the more opportunities you will hear about. And always remember: the more “No”s you hear, the closer you are to a “Yes”.

How can today's musicians think outside the box of traditional approaches and engage creatively with new possibilities?

There is a “received wisdom” about how to achieve music career success that isn’t always applicable to every musician. That received wisdom is often centered around linking yourself up with a larger company so that you can better your chances of success. It could be getting signed to a label or trying to get a writing deal from a publisher. There’s a lot of mythology around these goals.

Those mythologies have driven music instrument sales, trade magazines, and much else for musicians for many years, but we also know the statistics.

I would estimate that 99.99% of every artist ever signed to a label never receives a single penny in royalties.

That’s just the way it’s all set up. A recording deal can sometimes be a boost to a career, but it can be just as much a major career risk for the artist. Because these deals are tilted way in favor of the company, not the artist. Just look at the “Where are they now?” lists.

Since artists today have production, distribution and marketing capabilities in their own corner, that whole deal pursuit is not as attractive as it used to be. There are new approaches that need to be considered based on what’s happening in the business world. For example, every business is becoming a music business.

What do you mean by that?

Well, the baby boomers (those born between 1945-60) are in positions of power now. They grew up with music all around them. They lived it and breathed it. And now they’re trying to figure out how to add music and entertainment to the mix of what they’re doing in companies way outside the orbit of the music business. For example, Toyota, Starbucks and Stella Artois brewery have all started their own record labels.

You’ve got Song Airlines starting a record label and a recording studio. These are all straws blowing in the wind that indicate that potential partners for musicians have now emerged that weren’t there before. These are possibilities for affiliation and creative alliance to go forward with.

Asking a different set of questions is crucial to today’s career musicians. The whole business world is restructuring. We’re living through a time of “creative destruction”. In a sense, anything goes. Musicians have to expand their scope as they look out there in terms of potential partnerships.

How important is musical talent to an artist’s success as opposed to marketing and luck?

Talent is crucial. It’s so important to have that indescribable something that sets you apart, whether it’s in performing, writing, producing, arranging or mixing. But talent also needs a plan to get lucky. Talent is great, but it’s not the only ingredient. You definitely have to do some planning and strategizing in order to put yourself in the places where you can get lucky.

Try to become visible in media that’s pertinent to what you’re doing. Try to meet people that are in positions that can help your career along. There needs to be a business and marketing strategy put behind the talent to make it visible and to bring that career to the marketplace.

What is your definition of an effective player in the music biz?

Who an “effective player” is depends upon your perspective. If you’re looking at it from the music multinational’s perspective, they have their own cultures that require certain qualities in a player: the ability to wear those 90 day-glasses; devotion to the satisfaction of investor-demand over all else; the ability to see music exclusively as ‘product’. Those are some important attitudes to hold to be a player in that context.

But that’s not for everybody. And it doesn’t have to be. You can play in many different ways today. Consider the trend where other businesses are becoming music businesses. These are companies with no legacy of traditional music business practices. They’re coming at things from a whole different place, so you’re going to have to ‘play’ in a different way, often in a more refreshing way.

A key understanding here is the nature of communication. How do you communicate with your target market? Whoever it is you want to play with, you’ll play most effectively if you walk in their shoes for a while, understand what they value, and get a sense of whether or not it’s an affinity you want to have. If the vibes are right, then that might be a partnership you should pursue. But there are so many different sandboxes to play in now. Don’t limit yourself.

How do you help people to get on track in their career?

I have a five-phase program designed to help musicians or music businesses identify obstacles, discern their unique market niche and create strategies for becoming visible in those markets.

One recent client from Florida had gotten some bad advice on how to sell her CDs. She had a good size budget, but she was advised to take a “shotgun” national approach with little attention to the niches and not enough money behind the project to follow it up. A lot of people get radio promotion for their CD and do this big national spread, but they don’t realize that they have to follow this up with retail presence & promotion, media and print attention, and touring, all of which cost a lot of money.

It’s a ridiculous approach in a country as large as the U.S. My advice to her was to take a more regional approach with a focus on the affinities of her recording to niche retailers, hotels or gift shops. That’s proven to be a much more successful and manageable approach for her in terms of budget.

Build it slowly, but build it sure. Keep a focus. Most of us don’t have a million bucks to throw at a project. All the moves you make must be strategic so that money, time and energy are spent wisely.

How much time should a new artist take to get to a certain level?

Everyone begins a music career with different levels of experience and readiness. There’s no formula in terms of time. If an artist embarks with these kinds of values and strategies mentioned above early in their career, by the time they’re 30 they should be self sufficient with their music. For most people it does take a good ten years to galvanize an audience of support. It can happen quicker depending on how things emerge for the artist in different places.

If you stick to it and you tweak and tune your plan, and you continue to work on your craft, there’s going to be an audience that will produce a return on all that investment. It’s not going to be the flash-in-the-pan, shooting star approach of the major label machine. It’s going to be a slow burn. That’s the approach I encourage my clients to take.

How does an artist remain creative and soulful while making money in the music biz?

The key to remaining creative and soulful while making money in the business is to do business creatively and soulfully. I’m always amazed at how little creativity is put into the artist’s business and marketing activities. Always seek to make things fresh, whether it’s your phone message or the kind of envelop you use. There is a dearth of creativity out there. If you take the same creativity you put into your music and put it into your business activity, you will stand out in a crowded marketplace.

I think balance is another key. True success – which involves inner satisfaction, not just outward acknowledgement – is closely correlated with a balanced lifestyle. Truly successful individuals understand the importance that family, friends, a vocation, and service hold in life, rather than focusing solely on work or relying only on status and money as indicators of achievement. An integrated lifestyle will always be more gratifying, both spiritually and financially, than one in which there is an obsessive focus of any kind.

Certainly, we meet a range of characters in the music biz, some of whom are jaded or worse. One doesn’t necessarily have to interact with unethical or greedy people in order to succeed. Try finding those you resonate with on both a personal and a business level, and start creating something together. An artist doesn’t have to compromise his/her values.

If you’re willing to sell your mother for a record deal, then you’re going to get that kind of life and you may not even get the deal. I don’t resonate with this claw-your-way-to-the-top come what may approach. I’ve known artists or management teams who’ve taken that approach. In the end, it doesn’t benefit anyone.

Is there any way to avoid being misused by majors?

The artist who’s going to be dancing with the major label needs to understand who he’s dancing with. Most don’t. There’s a lot of PR veneer in front of the major labels that hides a lot of questionable dynamics. For example, at some major labels at least half of the record contracts are ‘grace-and-favor’ deals. These typically are favors owed to managers, artists or relatives of company executives. That is one reason why there’s a mortality rate of nine out of ten records not recouping their production costs.

It can be a sad, demoralizing place for an artist. These multinational record companies (what I call “the musical industrial complex”) are controlled primarily by investment banks. Those companies are itching for 90-day profits, leaving little room for patient business development of any kind. Creative art is going to get pinched in that environment. Label personnel are handcuffed in genuine attempts to help artists signed to their label.

Unlike the majors where waste is legendary because they’re playing with “monopoly money”, indies have to be more conservative. Indies have to emphasize more self-initiative and creativity in lieu of cash, and musical creation as opposed to dependence on a company definition of what constitutes a “hit”. The major label environment ends up being anti-art by its very nature. It’s treating artists the only way it can: as a good but disposable product.

There’s a lot more on this topic at my web site ( if you’re interested.

How should artists treat a major?

Corporations obviously have a large sphere of influence and well-oiled distribution channels. If a music project has already achieved a clear growing level of success and has smart management behind it, then a creative alliance with a corporation could be profitable.

Look at Aware Records or Mammoth. They’ve done well in joint ventures with the majors. But joint ventures don’t always allow the smaller company to thrive. Sometimes they do, but other times the smaller company is going to be pinched, either creatively, financially, or both.

In these kinds of deals the way to dance with a big company is to bring as much to the table at the front end as possible. In general, the more you bring to the table, the less they can take away.

What important things should unsigned acts know about before signing a contract?

Artists are too willing to sign onerous contracts. I’ve had lawyers outside of the music business look at some of the recording industry contracts handed to artists, and they’re absolutely shocked - and it’s not easy to shock an attorney!

There’s this amazing deal that’s being offered that’s almost 99% in the favor of the company. Being educated about contracts and what constitutes “standard industry practice” needs to be fully understood by the artist and his or her management.

Music contracts are the only contracts I’ve ever seen in the cultural industries where the artist is responsible for paying the production costs of the product the company is putting out. In book publishing I don’t get asked to foot the bill for the editing, formatting and manufacturing of my book. Filmmakers don’t get asked to foot the bill for the costs of producing the film they’re creating. That’s the “cost of doing business” for a company.

Only in the music industry do you have a mortgage where, once you pay it off, the bank still owns the house. It’s astounding. You have to pay for every cost associated with the recording and the company still owns the masters!

Early on, the big companies had the lawyers craft these devious documents which have come down to us today as “standard industry practices.” Some clauses have changed, especially in recent years, but for the most part these contracts are crafted to protect the company’s interests, not the artist’s. But they go beyond protecting the company interests. It’s really stealing when you compare it to other ways of doing business. That greediness is the whole reason the musical industrial complex is declining today. It’s one big karmic debt. And it’s payback time. The way they’ve approached contracts over the years is inexcusable.

What clauses in artist contracts would you like to see go?

The positives and negatives in artist recording contracts will often depend on how much the artist can bring to the label in terms of success in order to create a more equitable partnership with the company. We’re seeing some very gradual change in some places, but these changes will inevitably hit against corporate imperatives that demand company profit at the expense of everything else.

Certainly what the company requires as far as recoupment before artists get paid needs to change. Artists must pay back all recording, mixing, mastering, manufacturing and some of the marketing costs before they see any royalties. So more sharing of the responsibility for the production costs and other “costs of business” is necessary.

Some of the deductions need to change as well. For example, some contracts still try and include “breakage” deductions from the days when records were made out of shellac. I’m talking pre-vinyl!

Another thing I find onerous is the way the labels try and get artists to pay for the companies’ own missteps. The majors have spent tens of millions of US dollars in the last ten years trying to figure out this whole Internet thing. When artists are selling their downloads through a major, they’re still getting the same royalty rate, or lower, even though there’s no physical distribution. Why do the majors still collect even more per download than they would if it was a terrestrial CD? Because they want the artist to foot the bill for all those mistakes they made in all their Internet research in trying to adapt to or fight this technology. Remember SDMI? The artist loses again there.

Do you think that a system for artists modeled after the actors’ situation would work?

It depends on the kind of investment the label is making. If the artist is being given half a million US dollars to get something done, and if they’re going to sign that deal, then they’re responsible for pay that back within the term of the contract.

The term may need to be a little longer than a one year deal. The free agency thing is good, but only if the artist is going to have enough back up success to appeal that way to additional company suitors.

What do you think of the development of the Internet with regards to music biz models?

I’m quite bullish about the Net. The Net enables micro-entrepreneurs to build global audiences at minimal cost. It is essentially empowering the consumer to discover the music they want, not what some multinational decides will get shoved down their throats. The singer/songwriter Gilli Moon from Australia is traveling the globe and using the Internet to great effect. Hundreds of “under-the-radar” bands are sparking fanbases all over the world because the Net is their open mic to the world.

Marillion, a UK band from the 80s, has used the Internet to revitalize its whole career. Many more are soon waking up to the power of the Net. It provides self-organizing niche communities a chance to emerge and grow. This reflects and encourages the increasingly segmenting music market. This can only be good news to artists of all stripes, though it’s bad news for mass marketers like major record companies.

How will the recording industry reinvent itself in the near future?

I feel very enthusiastic about it, but I don’t feel that hopeful for the musical industry complex, because of the restraints they’re under and their corporate imperatives. We’re at the beginning of a huge transition, and an even bigger transformation.

John Perry Barlow’s observation that we’re seeing a shift from the domination of the music business to that of the musician business, says it all. We’re in a period of creative destruction. The old forms of power are being forced to share with the merging new forms.

What will the artist of the future look like?

The artists of the future are going to be the ones with the power in their corner. They’ll be able to produce and distribute music from their desktop. They’re going to have far more choices for partnering up with larger companies, should they even choose to do so.

Majors are going to be reduced to one advertising company option among many for artists. They’ll no longer be production houses; and more like just distribution companies. In fact, some will probably be spun off from the corporate parent and become “independent” again.

We’re going to see a continued segmentation of the market. The whole idea of the long tail market is what’s growing. The niche genres of music continue to develop media cultures through which artists in those genres can promote their talent. It gives more choice for consumers, artists and companies.

What will your forthcoming books be about?

Indie Marketing Power is a sister volume to Indie Power which came out two years ago. Indie Power is designed to help music entrepreneurs find their niche, build a business plan, set up their business and manage their work.

Indie Marketing Power explores the whole marketing piece - finding the best inlets and outlets through music talent, products and services. It will be jam-packed with music marketing wisdom and resources you can immediately put to use. Indie Marketing Power should be ready by April.

I’m putting together a business planning guide, and a lot more writing on spiritual and personal development, coming up this year!

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

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