OK, so you've worked hard to write and record your music and you've taken the next step to have CDs or cassettes duplicated. Great! Fun wasn't it? However, now it's time to enter the world of business, specifically, the music business. Now you've got to learn to deal with concepts such as publicity, promotion, sales, advertising, inventory, distribution, accounting, taxes, royalties and cooperation. Wait just a minute...cooperation? Business is about competition, not cooperation, right? Allow me to shatter a belief or two about the idea of competition and the importance of cooperation.
Most people picture the music business (and the business world in general) to be very cutthroat--where it's my label against your label, my release against your release, and may the strongest company survive. This vividly portrays the idea of competition. Competition conjures up many things in people's minds: winners and losers, price wars, bidding for talent, corporate secrecy, exclusive agreements, territorial rights, etc. Competition in the business world is so pervasive that even if you don't think you are competing, you are! If you put out an instrumental guitar album and declare, "This CD is not intended to compete with the new releases by Joe Satriani and Marty Friedman," your release is still competing for possible sales with buyers who can only afford to buy yours or Joe's. You are also competing with other labels for review space in magazines and fanzines, especially at the national level.
Does this mean you've got to adopt a hard line and view everyone in the music business as the enemy? The answer is a definitive no. Nothing will kill your emerging career faster than treating other indie labels and other musicians as competitive adversaries. Until you hit the big time, you are absolutely dependent on others to help you build your name and reputation. (Even after you hit the big time you should think long and hard about ever losing touch with the network of contacts you've made over the years. We've seen more than one major label act fall from grace and end up right back where they started years earlier. If you've burned bridges with your attitude, your career is effectively finished). Recognizing this dependency means that instead of adopting a competitive stance with others that you'll be stressing cooperation with everyone and anyone you meet in the business.
Let's further simplify the concepts of cooperation and competition as they relate to an independent artist's career by calling cooperation the way of give, and calling competition the way of take. When you practice cooperation you are constantly on the lookout for ways to help yourself (indirectly) by helping others (directly). Cooperation involves practicing a behavior that does not require immediate payback for time, effort or money spent. Cooperation is, in a sense, a leap of faith--the idea that if you put out or give one unit of energy (time, effort, money, trust) without expecting or demanding immediate return, that over time you'll see a return many times over your original unit of energy. I call it a leap of faith because so many people can't accept the way of give and refuse to believe it will work. They've been brought up to believe that only a fool gives something without expecting an immediate payback. So they practice the way of take instead.
The way of take means that you'll only look to help someone if they can promise to do something for you in exchange (immediately, if not sooner). It means you are perfectly willing to accept help (other people's time, money and energy) but never willing to give it freely yourself. Part of the reason for this attitude is an incorrect assumption by people that they don't really have anything of value to give. A good example of this in the music business is the musician that wants to get 'signed'. Imagine, their artistic goals in life have been reduced to one simple goal squarely in the realm of the way of take--find one record label large enough to throw a grand sum of money at their 'talent' by providing recording costs, duplication costs, promotional costs, living costs, tour support, etc. Some artists are so consumed by this goal that they refuse to consider other options that are available to them to participate in the music business. They believe they have nothing else to offer (to give) so their focus remains on finding the quickest way to the pot of gold.
There are an infinite number of paths to success in the music business. I've had the good fortune to meet many individuals who have come up with ideas to advance their careers that involve a great deal of cooperation and a minimization of the competitive aspects of the business world. Ideas that include: organizing independent compilation CDs; cross-promoting other record label's releases with their own releases; trading tour itineraries and experiences; appearing pro bono on other musician's recordings; starting programs to assist underprivileged musicians. These ideas all begin from a foundation of cooperation and a realization that the musical cosmos does not revolve around an individual but rather is the sum of the efforts of a number of people that must find ways to work together and to help each other.
Practicing cooperation and the way of give is not necessarily easy or intuitive. It may actually be quite difficult. After all, if you are offered a tryout with a group who needs a guitarist, would it be natural for you to call or notify an acquaintance (or an enemy!) who you know would be a perfect match for the group? Or would it be easier to contact them only after you've lost the gig? If you become aware of a competition for a slot on a compilation CD, do you immediately spread the news among every musician you know? Or do you feel your chances of being selected increase if the number of applicants is kept to a minimum?
How about selling your CD? Would you recommend anyone else's music ahead of your own if you really believed it was a better choice for the buyer? Or would it be in your best interests to 'talk up' your own CD even if it meant the buyer might get something they really don't care for?
I'm not suggesting that you ever give away things such as your legal rights or entitlements. Many musicians have signed contracts with record companies that have forced them to relinquish their publishing rights (song ownership). They might twist my interpretation of the way of give to imply that they 'gave away' their publishing rights and subsequently ended up without legal ownership of their own songs forever. I would answer that by pointing out that what caused the situation in the first place was their own reliance on the way of take. The idea that they might be able to secure a large advance (that has not been earned) and record in a real studio has blinded them to reality--that inexperienced musicians are frequently pressured into giving up both creative control and their publishing rights. The record company is insisting on the exchange--their money is traded for exclusive control over your creative output for a very long time. More often than not, bands and musicians take the often lopsided offer and suffer the consequences.
Believe me, there are going to be plenty of times in your musical life that you'll justify your self-centered actions by believing your primary goal is to place your own career first. By imagining success in the music business as a race to the finish line, you'll tend to ignore chances you have to help others by asking yourself, "Yeah, but what's in it for me, right now?" Listen, by not asking that question, and actually going out of your way to assist others whenever possible, you will be amazed at what will happen to you--and when you least expect it. Opportunities will come your way from the most unlikely of sources. The results from living the way of give will never be proven by science. Only by adopting and living in a spirit of cooperation will you be able to experience the abundance that comes from putting others first.
Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.
He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.
His 1997 CD release on Guitar Nine was entitled "Guitar Haus".
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